It started with a sign. Literally. Right outside of the North Carolina women’s basketball locker room at Carmichael Arena hangs a piece of cardboard with the words DO NOT ENTER, Final Four team loading…
The sign, according to CBS 17, was created by the players. It’s not only a reminder of the task at hand—to make it all the way to the Final Four for the first time since ’07—but the type of time they’re on before they even step foot in the locker room. It’s a sentiment UNC head coach Courtney Banghart embraces.
“If that’s what you want, this, this, this and this aren’t good enough. But I also don’t want to squash their dreams. You shouldn’t come to the University of North Carolina if you’re afraid to try to win a national championship,” Banghart told CBS 17.
The Tar Heels are led by four returning seniors who know what it’s like to play on the brightest stage: Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby, Anya Poole and Alexandra Zelaya were all part of the squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2022. The Tar Heels held their own against the eventual champs (South Carolina), as Kelly led the way with a smooth 23 points. Despite the 69-61 loss, it was the first time the Tar Heels had made it that far in the postseason since 2015.
After falling to Ohio State in the second round of the 2023 NCAA tournament, UNC is back. It’s still early, but their standout seniors Ustby and Kelly were named to the John R. Wooden Award
Watch List; Kelly was also named to the Nancy Lieberman Point Guard of the Year Award Watch List. The Texas native, who led the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game as a junior, had quite the offseason. When Kelly wasn’t training and working on her game, she was hosting her very own show with WSLAM, The 411 with Deja Kelly, where she interviewed some of the biggest names in the game, including Connecticut Sun star Alyssa Thomas and Liberty standout Betnijah Laney right in the SLAM HQ studio in NYC. She also attended WNBA All-Star Weekend and was deemed one of the “NCAA stars ready to lead the WNBA’s next generation” by Just Women’s Sports.
So, yeah, she’s been booked and busy. The standout guard returned to Chapel Hill for her final season poised and ready to embrace her role as one of the team’s vital pieces, and leaders, on the Tar Heels. “I’m the oldest on the team now by age. I don’t think it’s hit me yet. But yes, we’re starting to feel it a little bit, but I don’t think it’s fully hit us yet, until, like, Senior Night comes around. But I think we’re carrying that veteran role now,” she told CBS 17.
As of this writing, UNC is 5-3. Don’t sleep, though, they’ve got a talented squad that can hold its own on both ends of the floor. From Kelly knocking down midrange jumpers and dishing out dimes and Ustby snagging boards in the paint to the addition of transfer Lexi Donarski, who was the 2022 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at Iowa State, where she spent the past three seasons, there’s no end to the skill on this squad.
Whether the Tar Heels will achieve their mission is yet to be determined, but best believe, they have every intention of making it all the way.
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