Carolina

Carmichael Comments: Keep it up

Logic – and human nature – would suggest that it would be difficult for the Carolina women’s basketball team to top the emotion surrounding defeating NC State at Carmichael Arena on Jan. 15.

But wouldn’t you know, the Tar Heels did it. In two different ways: in the stands and on the pitch.

Thanks to a scheduling error, Carolina held its two biggest home games of the season as back-to-back games, with Duke visiting Carmichael just four days after the NC State contest. The two games were part of the Tar Heels’ first-ever three-game homestand against ACC opponents only – a trying and critical period for the team inside the lines and also for the marketing ace. While an 8 p.m. tip on a Thursday against Duke may have been less favorable for the numerous families attending on a Sunday afternoon against NC State, the Carolina students made up for it by filling the stands and having the largest student turnout for a game delivered in recent memory. The line snaked up the steps in front of Carmichael Arena and out onto the sidewalk along South Road…past Fetzer Hall…and down to the Student Stores. The announced crowd of 5,003 ensured that the Duke Rivalry game was played in front of at least 5,000 for the second consecutive year even midweek.
“That was really electrifying,” Carolina Head Coach Courtney Banghart said. “Having so many students really be at the forefront with our fan base was electrifying. Obviously it’s a huge game. It’s a ranked opponent, a rival, and an ACC leader. I will never forget the crowd that showed up for this team.”

The dynamic surrounding the fan base was perhaps even clearer on Sunday. Carolina hosted a Georgia Tech team near the basement of the ACC in their third home game in eight days. Throw in the Carolina men’s team and it was the fifth basketball game at Chapel Hill in the same span. It was raining outside. The kind of day when you want to grab a blanket and a hot chocolate and curl up on the couch with your dog or cat (just don’t give your dog the hot chocolate). And when they did, the mega-popular NFL playoffs were on TV at the same time.

But despite all of these factors, the Tar Heels and their growing fan base drew 4,418 fans to Carmichael. Carolina will end January averaging 4,929 fans per home game, undoubtedly the best in a month of the Banghart era. Imagine what the atmosphere could be like for hosting the NCAA tournament in March!

Then there’s the aspect between the lines of maintaining success. Carolina heeded the call to play another ranked rival on Thursday, holding off Duke 61-56 for the program’s first run of three straight home games against ranked teams, with all three resulting in wins. But similar to the crowds, keeping the momentum going against Georgia Tech was crucial.

All the Tar Heels did on Sunday was come out and shoot 47 percent, build a double-digit lead and roll over the Yellow Jackets to defend home court. The result gives Carolina their first five-game ACC winning streak of the Banghart era. For the head coach, the ability to hold her own against the Yellow Vests, even after a series of emotional battles against ranked opponents, is a testament to the mindset of her players.

“If you recruit kids who aren’t front runners, you’re not going to be very front runners,” Banghart said. “We didn’t really have to discuss it with them. We don’t have the luxury of dropping one along the way and they know it.”

With at least three games in a row against teams currently in the bottom half of the ACC standings, that mindset will be crucial over the next few weeks. Oh, and there are only four home games left in the regular season. Come be a part of it.

What else I noticed this week…

Ustby performs under adversity
Courtney Banghart received a text message from Athletic Trainer on Thursday morning Jodie Schneider. The topic? Alyssa Usby, always a key element in Carolina’s success in difficult ACC matchups against teams like Duke. The bad news: Ustby was treated intravenously. The good news: Tests for COVID and strep throat came back negative. Battling what Banghart later described as a “bad cold,” Ustby took her normal starting line-up for the 8:00 p.m. game, scoring 16 points in the win in an impressive and efficient 8-on-11 shooting night, caught five rebounds and gave out three assists.

“The boy is a warrior,” said Banghart.

After a limited run in practice on Friday to continue resting, Ustby was back on Sunday against Georgia Tech, delivering again with 17 points and eight rebounds.

three fall

Sundays have been particularly good days for the Tar Heels to shoot from three-point range lately. Seven days after cashing nine of 19 long-range looks against NC State, the Tar Heels hit eight three-pointers against Georgia Tech, six in the first half. For Carolina, success from a distance is not an overnight sensation, but rather the meeting of “good shots” and shots that actually come in. Sounds easy right?

“We took threes, we just didn’t do them,” Banghart noted with a grin. “The game plan is to work together to get great shots. I thought we did it. I thought we had better shots in the rhythm, in the openings, the ball moved.”

The most positive growth in three-point shooting this week came from Yes Kelly, who was linked with four threes on Sunday, one of her career highs. If Kelly can find her range consistently throughout the regular season, then watch out.

Opponents crumble at the foul line

Our friends in Learfield have a new promotion for the ever-growing crowd at Carmichael Arena. Learfield has partnered with Crumbl Cookies, a popular cookie chain with multiple local locations – including a Franklin Street opening next month – to launch the Crumbl Under Pressure promotion. If an opponent misses both free throws on a trip to the foul line in the second half, fans can take their game card to Crumbl for a free cookie. Sure enough, in both Duke and Georgia Tech games, the two miss free throw promotion was activated. It’s quickly becoming a favorite moment for the student division, who find themselves just behind the basket the opponents are shooting at in the second half. The students brought a black curtain, dubbed the “diversion curtain,” which opens to reveal a costumed and/or dancing student fan. Banghart took notice and was quick to praise the curtain of distraction as essential in creating the special atmosphere at Carmichael Arena. But one thing she would change about the promotion: The curtain also distracts rebounders.

“I think we need to change the Crumbl challenge so they miss two free throws AND we secure the defensive rebound,” Banghart joked.

Next

It’s on the way for a few games for the Tar Heels this week. For the first time since 2013, Carolina will play a Thursday/Sunday game pair in two different states — neither state being North Carolina. First, the Tar Heels will hop on the plane to Pittsburgh to face the Pitt Panthers on Thursday night. While Pitt could be 0-8 in the ACC, the all-time series is tied with Carolina 6-6, and the Panthers have played in single digits against Miami and Virginia Tech at their home at the Petersen Events Center.

This is an important game for Carolina to do what we discussed above: keep the train going and stack wins. Tip on Thursday is set for 6:00 p.m., with our THSN coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. with the Reeds Jewelers Pregame Show. Watch the broadcast locally on 97.9 FM/1360 AM in the Triangle (starts direct at 6:00 AM), or worldwide for free via our THSN streaming platforms: GoHeels.com, the GoHeels app and the Varsity Network app by Learfield.

Then on Sunday, Carolina heads to the Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, SC to take on the Tigers at 4:00 p.m. The Tar Heels have had five straight wins against Clemson since 2018, including two triumphs at Littlejohn. They’ll look to take that streak to six straight on Sunday, but Clemson are a very tough team at home, having beaten Virginia Tech there and falling by just three points to Notre Dame. We’ll be on the air with the Reeds Jewelers Pregame Show on Sunday at 3:30pm. Find us on all the usual channels – locally on 97.9 FM/1360 AM in the Triangle or worldwide for free on our THSN streaming platforms: GoHeels.com, the GoHeels app and Learfield’s Varsity Network app.

In the meantime, check out the latest issue of Holding Court Courtney Banghart, which is available on the Tar Heel Voices Podcast Channel. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. It also airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 p.m. on WCHL in Chapel Hill.

That’s all for now. Walk heels!

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