Carmichael Comments: Regrouping – University of North Carolina Athletics
There’s no denying that Friday’s ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament quarterfinal loss to Virginia Tech was a disappointment for the Tar Heels. A hard-fought 87-80 overtime loss to the Hokies, which included nine draws and 11 lead changes, provided a March classic for a neutral observer, but a heartbreak for those who have come to love the women’s team of Carolina basketball this year.
For the team members themselves, the game provided a chance to grow, learn, and realize the challenges that postseason basketball offers. We’ve talked in this column all season about how this season has been an incremental improvement for a Tar Heels team that, while successful, is still on the younger side of a very deep ACC. And as the gradual growth process continues, learning how to win in the playoffs is another one of those growth stages.
“I think the biggest help is the whole March mentality – surviving and moving forward,” the Carolina head coach said. Courtney Bangart noted. “Unfortunately, you don’t really understand until he hits you. This group has learned that if you’re not good enough, it’s over.”
That’s the lesson Carolina learned on Friday, when Virginia Tech picked up momentum and took the overtime win. In this case, the “it” that was over was hope for a 10th ACC championship, which would be the most among active teams in the conference. What’s not over, however, is the 2021-22 season. The Tar Heels’ 23-6 overall record puts Carolina comfortably in the NCAA Tournament pack of 68, and comfortably in the range of a single-digit seed. The idea that the Hokies’ backhand could allow the team to regroup and recalibrate for the road ahead in March Madness was not lost on Banghart.
“It’s a good ignition as we soon get into the big dance here,” she said after the game.
In some ways, the Virginia Tech game was a playoff baptism of fire. Only two Tar Heels – Malu Tshitenge and Jaelynn Murray – had played an ACC Tournament game with full capacity of fans allowed in the venerable Greensboro Coliseum. Now, thanks to the double bye, Carolina had to immediately face a team with an identical ACC regular-season mark of 13-5, and a team the Tar Heels shared a pair of regular-year games with. So even when the Hokies started the game without starting guard Cayla King, who was injured in Virginia Tech’s ACC second-round win over Clemson and then lost ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley through injury early in the game, Tech provided a terrific test. Guards Georgia Amoore, Aisha Sheppard and Kayana Traylor carried the charge, scoring 63 of 87 points. Although the Tar Heels did their best to defend the trio, it was ultimately not enough to secure victory.
“It’s a great learning opportunity,” Banghart said. “As I told them in the locker room, ‘Mars is full of really good players, your efforts aren’t enough anymore.'”
Banghart pointed to the offensive adjustments made by Virginia Tech after Kitley’s injury as the catalyst for the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles.
“We played them so many times, there was a very consistent lineup, so it felt like we had our reads on how we defended them,” Banghart explained. “So when she comes out, although she’s a top player for them, it changed a lot the way we were going to defend.”
In the end, when the Hokies adapted, Carolina did too. That’s basketball – each individual game evolves and turns into a game of chess between the respective coaches. However, Banghart pointed to momentary lapses in defensive coverage as the cause of Virginia Tech’s offensive success. The timing and execution of these adjustments was partly to blame.
“We should be able to do it on the fly, so I don’t think it’s a game we won,” she said.
While the match ultimately ended in a loss, the blessing in disguise came from a double rejuvenation ability. First, Carolina was able to have the weekend for some much-needed rest to allow players’ bodies to recover more for an upcoming NCAA tournament. Then the lack of games this week meant extra time for a movie session to break down the team’s March debut. Their leader believes that mentally chasing mistakes by studying them and knowing how to improve will lead to success down the line.
“Sometimes it’s good to move on, and other times it’s good to show them ‘okay, that’s what happened, so you don’t think about what’s happened,'” Banghart explained.
And that “down the line” is very soon – next week, to be exact.
“Wherever we end up in the NCAA Tournament, we have that as an example,” she said.
While a 10and The ACC championship would have been nice, there’s another shot next year. But this year’s team isn’t done yet, and the temporary pain and disappointment of a loss at Greensboro could be the seed that bears the fruit of March Madness glory.
Here’s what caught my eye this week…
Hodgson’s Shining Moment
When Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore hit a layup and converted a free throw and one with less than three seconds left, the Tar Heels were down 69-66. Banghart called the timeout, which allowed Carolina to advance the ball into the frontcourt to run one last play in an attempt to tie the game. That’s when Naismith’s former National Coach of the Year worked his magic.
“I play chess, you play hoop,” Banghart told his team.
No pawns or rooks here, but Banghart has made up a deck to get Eva Hodgson a look from the left wing. The redshirt junior, who had scored more than 10 points in both regular season games against the Hokies, released the ball just in time and hit the triple. When the ball tumbled through the string, Hodgson fell to her knees and slid to midfield, her teammates rushing off the bench to harass her. But as Hodgson’s teammate Already Kelly talked about post-game, the rush of emotion had to be quickly put aside.
“Once Eva hit that shot, we were excited to have another chance in overtime, but I had to remind our team in the huddle ‘the score is zero-zero now’, and that we had to play like it was a new match,” Kelly explained.
Tournament city delivers
Despite an early tipping hour at 11 a.m. on a work day and a school day on Friday, the Greensboro Coliseum was rocking for the Carolina-Virginia Tech showdown. The crowd, which filled much of the building’s lower bowl, was overwhelmingly Carolina blue, with a smattering of NC State red (the Wolfpack played immediately after the Tar Heels) and Virginia Tech maroon and orange behind the bench of the Hokies. Simply put, it was an incredible environment for an ACC-worthy, lore-rich game.
“I want to thank Greensboro,” Banghart said. “You are putting on a first class event. Our athletes feel welcome, they feel supported, and obviously the crowd is fired up by these teams.”
The Tar Heels will await their seed, opponent and destination for the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced Sunday night at 8 p.m. during the NCAA Women’s Special Draft on ESPN. Be sure to tune in to see what’s in store for heels! Stay tuned to social media channels GoHeels.com and @uncwbb for more information on how the general public can join in the celebration with the program.
Once plans for the big dance are set, we’ll have another commentary from Carmichael next week, and then a return from Court held with Courtney Bangart Tuesday, March 15.
That’s all for the moment. Go heels!