Win over rival just the start for Tar Heels’ Banghart

Courtney Banghart got her first big win as the Tar Heels’ coach last Thursday when North Carolina defeated previously unbeaten NC State 66-60 in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Before Courtney Banghart could start winning games as North Carolina’s first new women’s basketball coach in 34 years, she first had to start winning over the Tar Heels’ returning players.

It’s a process that didn’t happen overnight.

“It took me a while,” junior center Janelle Bailey said. “It’s just about pieces, learning a new offense, someone new getting on you every day. It was defense, defense, defense. We didn’t get to offense until late. So everything was new.

“At times it was frustrating. But I always realize when I get frustrated, something good is going to come out of it. That’s what basketball is all about.”

Halfway through Banghart’s first season with the Tar Heels, the reward for that early frustration is already beginning to be felt.

While the UNC men’s team is suffering through a slump of historic proportions, the women are quietly off to a promising start.

Their 12-4 record includes a 66-60 upset of ninth-ranked rival NC State last Thursday, a game in which the Tar Heels displayed the kind of toughness their coach pushed them to develop by battling back from a 13-point deficit early in the third quarter.

“I walked into the locker room and I said, ‘Think back to where you were in April and what you went through to get to this point,’” the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year said after the win. “They were very well prepared. They stayed coachable. Everybody had a role in that win on both sides of the ball. Our mantra was us versus them, and I’m just so happy for the kids that our us was good enough tonight.”

While the victory was Banghart’s first against a ranked opponent since arriving in Chapel Hill last April, she is anything but a stranger to high-level competition.

In 12 seasons at Princeton, she compiled a 254-103 record (a .711 percentage) while winning seven Ivy League championships and reaching the NCAA Tournament eight times. Her 2015 team went 30-0 during the regular season, had the nation’s longest winning streak at the time and earned its highest NCAA seeding in school history at No. 8.

She was hired by UNC in the aftermath of a controversy that saw Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, who had just led the Tar Heels to their first NCAA Tournament in four years, resign under pressure amid allegations of insensitive racial remarks and forcing her players to play while injured.

As impressive as Banghart’s basketball resume might be, it was her people skills that proved most beneficial during what could have been a difficult transition.

“She gives each and every player confidence,” senior guard Taylor Koenen said of her new coach. “She doesn’t let us dwell on anything. She believes in us and that makes our teammates believe in each other, too. I just believe that’s a huge part of (the team’s success).”

Belief played a key role in last week’s upset of the Wolfpack and is the foundation for the program Banghart hopes to build at UNC.

“This wasn’t one of those games where they didn’t play well and we just hit everything. We had to grind it,” Banghart said. “They really shot the ball and it took an added element of trust in that moment to say, ‘Stay with us, stay with us.’

“If you’re going to be a good team, you’ve got to trust inside-out, top-down, side-to-side. It’s always great to beat a top-10 team, but it’s how they did it in this particular moment, after what these kids have gone through, that makes me really happy for them.”

That joy wasn’t limited to Banghart, her players and her staff. As she headed toward the locker room following a brief postgame celebration, she found herself face-to-face with another first-year (sort of) Tar Heels coach — Mack Brown, who congratulated her with a hug.

It was certainly an occasion to celebrate.

But as Saturday’s 78-64 loss at Florida State quickly reminded, the process of returning UNC to the ACC’s women’s basketball elite under Banghart is still in its early stages.

“This game is for the long run,” Bailey said of the State victory. “It’s just about building chemistry for next game, next week and next month. We are just getting better, and that’s a big motivator to me.”