‘Small gym,’ big rivalry between NC State, UNC women’s teams

Coach Courtney Banghart gave the Wolfpack some bulletin board material ahead of their matchup, which ended with a runaway Wolfpack victory

UNC coach Courtney Banghart speaks with an official during the Tar Heels loss to rival NC State last Thursday at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

The firestorm started with a throwaway line. Or was it a backhanded compliment, intentionally designed to throw shade at a rival?

Only Courtney Banghart knows for sure.

Either way, there’s no question that the North Carolina women’s basketball coach added just a little extra spice to the already spirited relationship between her Tar Heels and NC State when she downplayed the significance of the expected sellout crowd at Reynolds Coliseum for last Thursday’s matchup with the Wolfpack.

“It’s a small gym, so it doesn’t take a lot to sell it out,” Banghart said before acknowledging that the atmosphere in the historic arena, whose capacity was reduced to around 5,500 after its renovation in 2016, would be exciting and that enthusiastic crowds are good for the women’s game. “We’ll play in front of more fans in other places.”

That may eventually prove to be true, even though only two other ACC schools — Louisville and Notre Dame — are averaging more fans per game than State.

But it didn’t matter to the Wolfpack faithful, who took Banghart’s comment as a slight against their school, their arena and their two-time defending ACC championship team. And they took to social media in massive numbers to express their displeasure.

Even retired State athletic director Debbie Yow got into the act, replying to Banghart’s small gym quote by tweeting “Bless her heart.”

The internet being what it is, other unaffiliated instigators quickly joined in the viral fun.

Shaw sports information director Antoine Lynch posted a photo of his school’s tiny C.C. Spaulding Gymnasium with the caption: “An actual small … loud gym in Raleigh. Did I do that right?”

The reactions, both angry and humorous, made for good theater, not that the matchup between the fifth-ranked Wolfpack and the undefeated Tar Heels — who came into the game at No. 19 — needed any more of a buildup.

Nor did the home team need any extra motivation.

“We were really just worried about winning the game,” State’s All-American center Elissa Cunane said. “A win over Carolina in anything, I guess, is always good.”

While it’s not unusual for rivals to take verbal jabs at one another either before or after a big game, Banghart’s comment was significant because, when it comes to the Tar Heels and Wolfpack, the first salvo has traditionally come from the State side — most notably football coaches Tom O’Brien and Dave Doeren.

If Banghart was trying to give her team an edge by riling up a rival’s already rabid fan base, it backfired spectacularly.

State held UNC scoreless for the first five minutes of the game, jumped out to a 10-0 lead that ballooned to as many as 29 during the second half and limited the Tar Heels to just 23% shooting on the way to a convincing 72-45 victory.

It was a humbling performance for Banghart and her team. Afterward, though, the third-year coach was anything but contrite.

Although she admitted that “when the going got tough, we backed down a little bit,” Banghart doubled down on her original statement by throwing a little more fuel on the rivalry fire.

Asked if she thought the hostile crowd might have contributed to UNC’s slow start, she replied by saying that “the gym in the Bahamas was even louder and hotter” — referring to the two games the Tar Heels played as part of the Goombay Splash tournament in November.

“I’d like to blame (the loss) on anything else,” she said. “But that’s not really what we’re about.”

It should be noted that the published attendance for UNC’s win against Washington at Gateway Christian Academy in Bimini was only 100. Attendance wasn’t noted on the box score from the previous game a day earlier against VCU.

Before Thursday’s game at Reynolds, the biggest crowd to see the Tar Heels play this season was 3,234 at Minnesota. Their biggest home crowd to date was 2,621 against Charlotte on Nov. 14.

UNC will have a chance to top that mark later this month when it faces State in a rematch in Chapel Hill on Jan. 30. With a capacity of 6,822, its Carmichael Arena is larger than Reynolds Coliseum.

It’s doubtful that Wolfpack coach Wes Moore will poke the hornets’ nest by bringing up the subject of arena sizes and the crowds that fill them in the lead-up to that game. But he couldn’t help but take a poke at Banghart in the aftermath of Thursday’s win.

That is, after all, what rivalries are all about.

Upon seeing the larger than usual contingent of media members waiting to hear his postgame remarks, he sarcastically noted that “I guess we’ve got a small media room, too.”