Banghart’s upstart UNC squad readies for South Carolina

The Heels looked like world‑beaters in Arizona, but the top-seeded Gamecocks will present a whole different challenge when the teams meet in Greensboro

UNC guard Kennedy Todd-Williams and forward Anya Poole celebrate during the Tar Heels' second round win Monday in the NCAA Women's Tournament in Tucson, Arizona.(Rebecca Sasnett / Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Things didn’t go well for the North Carolina women’s basketball team the last time it played a postseason game at Greensboro Coliseum.

That was two weeks ago at the ACC Tournament when the higher-seeded Tar Heels surrendered a season-high 87 points in a quarterfinal overtime loss to Virginia Tech.

The result likely cost coach Courtney Banghart’s team an opportunity to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Chapel Hill. Instead, UNC was sent across the country to play in Tucson, Arizona.

It’s a disadvantage the fifth-seeded Tar Heels were able to overcome by winning twice, including Monday’s impressive 63-45 beatdown of host Arizona — a win that earned them a second chance at playing close to home in Greensboro, site of Sweet 16 in the NCAA’s South Region.

“I remember we were doing our celebration when we figured out where we were playing for the tournament and all of our fans were like, ‘Oh, Tucson,’” Banghart said during a postgame press conference on Monday. “Then we figured out that it was Greensboro if we advance, and they all said just please come home.

“I had, I think, 181 unread text messages, so I can’t even keep up. People saying come on, one more so you can come home. I think we will draw well. The environment will be great.”

The environment might be great, but the task won’t be easy. And the large crowd that’s expected won’t all be rooting for the same Carolina.

That’s because the Tar Heels’ opponent on Friday will be No. 1 ranked South Carolina, the tournament’s top overall seed and a team located close enough that a large contingent of its fans will also be in attendance.

To have a shot at beating the Gamecocks and advancing to its first Elite Eight since 2014, UNC will have to play with the same kind of energy it had in Arizona — especially on the defensive end of the court, where it limited the Wildcats to 45 points and 28.8% shooting from the floor.

“Our guys were just really disciplined, and you have to be,” Banghart said. “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.”

In addition to the stout defensive effort, the Tar Heels (25-6) also got an offensive lift from sophomore guard Kennedy Todd-Williams.

The team’s third-leading scorer this season behind stars Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby, Todd-Williams led UNC with a season-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor and seven rebounds in the win against Arizona. She also pulled down seven rebounds while adding a career-best five assists.

“She came out gunning from the jump,” Kelly, who finished with 15 points, said of Todd-Williams. “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.”

UNC will probably need more of that — and perhaps a Y- and a Z-factor as well — to knock off South Carolina, which, led by its national Player of the Year candidate Aliyah Boston, has compiled an impressive 31-2 record.

“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. That challenge will be formidable.

“I know it’s a very quick turnaround because we are on the other side of the earth right now and we have to get back home. But we have played them. We’ve recruited those players, so we know them well. Our guys are going to give what we got and that’s a very, very good basketball team, and it will be exciting to be playing them in Greensboro.”