March 22, 2022 

Inside North Carolina’s return to Sweet 16

Courtney and Carlie to the second weekend at last

TUCSON, Ariz. — With 1.8 seconds left in Monday’s second round game, as Arizona’s Adia Barnes called a timeout to sub out her longtime senior Sam Thomas, North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart used the moment to sub out her grad transfer, Carlie Littlefield.

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Littlefield was walking off the court at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona, and it wasn’t hard for Banghart to envision her playing here for the Wildcats. Arizona is the school her father went to, and when Littlefield entered the transfer portal out of Princeton, both her dad’s alma mater and their national title game opponent, Stanford, were high on her list.

But the coach who recruited her to Princeton was texting her during that game, asking her to trust her again. Help her again. Choose her — and the Tar Heels.

Littlefield did choose the Tar Heels. And on that same floor she could’ve played on all season, facing the school she grew up loving, Littlefield hugged Banghart and didn’t let go for a while. A coach and a player, together for a second time, on to a place neither has been:

The Sweet 16.

Thanks to a stifling defensive performance and a career night from Kennedy Todd-Williams, North Carolina is back in the Sweet 16 as a program for the first time since 2014-15 after defeating 4-seed Arizona on their home floor 63-45.

Todd-Williams matched her career-high with 19 points and tied her season-high with five assists, while being the primary defender who held Arizona’s star guard Shaina Pellington to just three points on the night. The sophomore from Jacksonville, North Carolina — down near the coast, where so many famous Tar Heel hoopers before her have come from — brought “everything” on the night, according to fellow sophomore Deja Kelly.

“She came out gunning from the jump,” Kelly said. “She was defending, running the floor, getting steals and she was doing a little bit of everything, which is what we needed her to do. She was our X-factor tonight and she is probably the biggest reason why we won this game by a lot.”

Banghart added, “We needed her to have a great game. She can do so many things on the court, and you know, for a kid like that to be able to impact the game? I’ve called her Scottie Pippen since the day I recruited her. You saw today she’s like Scottie Pippen. She does a little bit of everything that contributes to winning.”

It was the defensive effort that stole the show, though. Even if there were some decent looks, North Carolina contested seemingly every shot and made life hard for the Wildcats. And when the shots stopped falling, Arizona wasn’t able to get points in other ways, going 11 minutes and 27 seconds between points from the middle of the first quarter until late in the second.

Perhaps the most vital part? For a Carolina team that shrunk its rotation down to six players Monday night, they all stayed out of foul trouble, only committing six fouls on the entire game.

“Our guys were just really disciplined,” Banghart said. “And you have to be. We said you’re going to have to beat a really good team on the road, a really good team, and you’re going to have to go through them. You can’t go around them; you can’t ask them nicely to move. You’re going to have to go right through them, and I thought they did that.”

When you only play six, darn near everybody has to have a strong night in order to win, which happened here. Sophomore wing Alyssa Ustby held Arizona center Cate Reese — who PJ Brown of the Tuscon Daily Star reported played through a “significant” shoulder tear — to six points while adding 12 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks of her own. Sophomore post Anya Poole made all four first half shots in an eight-point, six-rebound night. Kelly dropped 15, including a 9-for-10 night from the free-throw line.

The three players mentioned up there, plus Todd-Williams? All sophomores (as with Alexandra Zelaya, the seventh player who played a minute on Monday but otherwise is a part of the rotation). Banghart called them “COVID freshmen” after Monday’s win, but they certainly didn’t look their age during the game. When some youngsters could become tentative, especially against pressure defense, this group stacked on the attack.

“I really tried to get into them that we are going to have run through Arizona, run right by them in transition, run through them in quarter court, cut hard through them or we’re not going to be able to gently work our way through this game,” Banghart said. “And I think that freed up the guys to know, ‘When I drive hard, I’ve got to make a pass.’ Because if you’re hesitant against pressure, it’s not good. And so I’m most proud of their ability to be aggressive and play with confidence on this stage in this environment being so young.”

That youth is a major part of why this run to the Sweet 16 is so impressive. And while the Tar Heels made it to this round 17 times prior and won a national championship under former head coach Sylvia Hatchell, the accusations of racism and improper treatment that led to Hatchell’s resignation in 2019 left many questions about the program.

But in came Banghart, who had built an Ivy League power at Princeton that seems to have been perpetually underseeded by the selection committee. Banghart had been at Princeton for eight NCAA Tournament runs and only won one game, but she was smiling bright when her replacement Carla Berube and some of the Tigers she recruited to the school beat Kentucky on Saturday.

Banghart had moved on, though, and in Chapel Hill she added a ninth trip to the NCAA Tournament in the 2021 “bubble” in San Antonio but lost in the first round again. But even with all of those trips and failures, Banghart still feels this is “the premier event in athletics.”

But winning sure feels nice here, though. And on her 10th try in this tournament she loves so dearly, Banghart is through to the second weekend and the Sweet 16 for the first time. When The Next reminded her of that fact after her postgame press conference, Banghart stopped for a moment and let that sink in.

“It’s a big deal,” Banghart said to The Next. “I think I’m so focused always that sometimes I forget the little things and this isn’t a little thing. This is a big deal. That I was able to amass a team and not only amass the team but get them through it to get to a Sweet 16. I think it’ll hit me more tonight.”

The Tar Heels were heading home on Tuesday no matter the result Monday night, but they’ve now got Friday night plans in the Greensboro Coliseum, where they’ve annually had massive fan support during the ACC Tournament. Several players were excitedly screaming, “We’re going home” after the win.

And make no mistake, getting the chance to play back at home was a major motivating factor for the Tar Heels.

“I remember we were doing our celebration [on Selection Sunday] when we figured out where we were playing for the tournament and all of our fans are like, oh, Tucson,” Banghart said. “And then we figured out that it was Greensboro if we advance and they all said just please come home. I think going into this game, I had 181 unread text messages — I can’t even keep up — of people saying, ‘Come on, one more so you can come home.’”

Todd-Williams added, “We know that our crowd is going to be there for sure and that’s going to give us a lot of momentum. Arizona is a great team, but we were ready to play in the Sweet 16 and we are very capable of beating whoever.”

That team up next? Only the top team in all of the land, South Carolina. And while the Tar Heels are confident, Banghart knows it’s a great task ahead of them.

“South Carolina is one of the very best teams in the country and they have some of the very best players in the country,” Banghart said. “They are incredibly dominant inside. You’re playing the No. 1 seed overall, them and Stanford are fighting for that right now. That challenge will be formidable.”

But North Carolina and South Carolina have a little history already this year, having played a closed-door scrimmage in Columbia, South Carolina in the preseason. And while the result of that scrimmage has been kept quiet, sources tell The Next it was a tightly-contested South Carolina win — closer than HerHoopStats’ currently projected 10.9-point spread in favor of the Gamecocks.

That experience is, undoubtedly, giving those in Carolina blue a whole lot of confidence entering Friday’s matchup. And the atmosphere should be absolutely electric — much like it just was in Tucson.

“I think we will draw well. The environment will be great. South Carolina travels as well,” Banghart said. “Women’s basketball is in the best spot it ever been in. I’ve given my life to the women’s basketball game. All I’ve ever done with two Ivy League degrees — a lot of people would question that, including my parents. The game is the healthiest it’s ever been, and the crowds will show out for it.”

That crowd will get to see these sensational sophomores for the Tar Heels … and the grad transfer from Princeton, who had offers from all over the Power 5.

North Carolina grad transfer Carlie Littlefield gets the team’s nameplate to stick on the bracket in Tucson, Arizona on Monday, March 21. (Alex Simon/The Next)

As Banghart told the team when she gave Littlefield the North Carolina nameplate to put on the bracket:

“You chose these guys. They chose you.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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