All eyes on the Triangle: Previewing No. 19 UNC at No. 5 N.C. State
"If this doesn’t excite the state of North Carolina, that’s really sad."
For fans of ACC women’s basketball, most eyes will be on Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina on Thursday evening. That’s where the undefeated No. 19 North Carolina Tar Heels will take on the No. 5 N.C. State Wolfpack for the first time this season.
“It didn’t take me long to be at Carolina to know how important this game is,” third-year UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said.
The contest is sold out, and will be televised nationally on the ACC Network, with tip-off set for 8 p.m. EST.
“It’s great for our sport, and it’s great for our players to have this kind of atmosphere,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “There’s going to be a lot of energy in the building and that’s fun. That’s what the players want – they want to play in front of crowds and they want to play in big games.”
The matchup between UNC and N.C. State was supposed to be one of two games in North Carolina’s Triangle on Thursday night that featured a pair of Top 25 teams. No. 17 Duke was set to host No. 16 Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets are in COVID protocols and the game has been postponed.
With UNC moving up to No. 19 this week in the AP Poll, it’s the first time since March 17, 2014 that all three Triangle teams — the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Wolfpack — have been ranked in the top 20 of the poll.
“That’s just really special for this region. We’ve talked about this being a basketball state and basketball conference, and we’re proving it – in a short time. I’m just happy for the fans,” Banghart said. “I challenge any other part of the country to say they’ve got three top 20 teams within 40 miles of each other.”
Banghart continued: “If this doesn’t excite the state of North Carolina, that’s really sad… I took this job because I thought Carolina had to be good at women's basketball to grow our sport. And I've devoted my life to this sport, and a school like Carolina being good helps the game. And to know that we get to do it in a region that people care about basketball — we're just bringing more and more eyes to the ACC, which I think is the premier basketball conference.”
Added Moore: “It’s a tough neighborhood. Carolina and Duke both have done a really good job of replenishing their rosters, whether it's through recruiting or through the transfer portal or whatever. I'd say we may be in the toughest group in the conference… This league is really, really good this year.”
It’s the first big test of the season for North Carolina. While the Tar Heels are unbeaten through 13 games and hold the nation’s best scoring margin at 32.3 points per-game, the opponents they’ve faced have a collective winning percentage of 44.6%, which ranks 261st national, according to HerHoopStats.
The Tar Heels didn’t aim to have a soft schedule when Courtney Banghart created it. UNC has played in six games away from Carmichael Arena. They took on three Power Five teams in non-conference play. And the Heels also beat last year’s A-10 champ, VCU, and the team picked to win CUSA, Charlotte. On-paper, the slate looked difficult, especially for a team that was returning just a pair of players that averaged at least 20 minutes per-game last season.
Last year’s unit made the NCAA tournament with just 13 wins. It’s January and the Tar Heels have already matched that victory total, in large part due to the stellar play of those two returners — sophomores Deja Kelly and Alyssa Utsby — who finally got a real full offseason to work with Banghart and the rest of UNC’s coaching staff.
Kelly is averaging 17.5 points per-game this season and shooting 41.8% from three-point land. She’s third in the conference in scoring — only behind Wake Forest’s Jewel Spear and Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley — and she’s 16th in the nation in win shares with 4.4.
“Our sophomore class is a whole lot better than people think,” Banghart said. “Now, with the emergence of Carlie Littlefield, Deja can play the one and the two, and can ebb and flow, and the ball moves better. Deja is better. She's adjusted to the college pace, so she can facilitate with her vision better. She's shooting it better. She's playing with more confidence.”
Utsby is UNC’s swiss-army knife, and a damn sharp one too. She does a little bit of everything, and does it all pretty well. She leads the team in rebounding, steals and field goals made, is second in scoring, and third in assists. In all, she averages 14.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 2.4 assists per-game while shooting 50.7% from the floor.
According to HerHoopStats, Utsby is third nationally in defensive win shares with 2.2. She’s been key to UNC’s defense, a unit that holds its opponents to 0.59 points per-play, a mark that’s the best in the country. Opponents also shoot just 31.8% from the floor vs. the Tar Heels, which is third best in the nation.
“She’s one of the most active defenders I’ve ever coached,” Banghart said of Utsby.
Since Banghart was hired at UNC ahead of the 2019-20 season, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack have split their regular season contests the past two years. Moore knows what a Banghart-coached team is capable of doing to his N.C. State squad, so toss aside any criticisms of UNC’s schedule. When the Tar Heels and Wolfpack step on Kay Yow Court on Thursday, anything is possible.
“They’re playing extremely well. Their transition game is really, really good. They run the floor hard,” Moore said of UNC. “We’re going to have to try to slow all of that down. We haven't been playing defense, really, to the level that we would like to be.
“Last year, we let Utsby just outrun us down the floor for layups.”
N.C. State is 12-2 so far this season, with its only losses coming at home to a pair of SEC powerhouses in South Carolina and Georgia. Among its wins though, the Wolfpack have bested fellow top 10 teams in Maryland and Indiana to earn their high ranking.
As usual, the Wolfpack will be powered by Elissa Cunane and the host of veterans around her — from Kayla Jones to Kai Crutchfield to Raina Perez. Junior wing Jakia Brown-Turner is emerging as a serious offensive playmaker too, and opponents can’t forget about N.C. State’s bench play this season, led by former All-Big Ten selection Diamond Johnson, the ACC co-Sixth Player of the Year Jada Boyd, and standout reserve post Camille Hobby.
Moore said that when the Wolfpack played at Clemson last week, he was without many of his assistant coaches who were not on the bench due to COVID protocols. Because he didn’t have anyone in his ear, he “kind of forgot about” Cunane, an All-American, who sat on the bench most of the game. Cunane played just 14 minutes, and N.C. State still won by 27 points.
“Matchup wise, they’ve got multiple pros that are ready to kind of take that step at some point very soon in their careers. They got a lot of good players that we have a lot of respect for,” Banghart said. “Obviously, Cunane is one of the premier posts in our game and she’s been doing this for a long time… They have a massive size advantage at most positions.”
N.C. State hasn’t played in a week. While Moore was a bit concerned about the team getting rusty with the layoff, it has allowed one his key contributors get healthy. Jones, a fifth-year forward who is fourth on the team in rebounding and fifth in scoring, sat out of the Wolfpack’s road win at Clemson.
“She should be” able to play vs. UNC, Moore said. “She’s been able to practice. I’ve got to do a good job of pacing her and trying to squeeze as much out as we can. I think it’s going to be a problem all year for her… A lot of these surgeries really take a full year to recover. She’s not there yet, but she’s such a smart player, such a high basketball IQ for us, that it’s hard to get her off the floor sometimes.”
Cunane helps No. 2 N.C. State women rout Virginia 82-55 (Associated Press)
Tested and ‘Courtney-picked,’ UNC is undefeated and awesome on defense (The Next)
N.C. State's expectations high for Diamond Johnson (City of Basketball Love)
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