Pickleball, whitewater rafting and 3-on-3: How No. 16 UNC women’s basketball team bonded

On the last day of preseason workouts for North Carolina women’s basketball team, head coach Courtney Banghart picked names out of a hat for a pickleball tournament.

It wasn’t the only non-basketball activity the No. 16 Tar Heels, who boast eight newcomers, have done during the preseason. The team took a trip to Charlotte and went whitewater rafting. They’ve held competitive Wiffle-ball tournaments and 3-on-3 scrimmages at Banghart’s house, in addition to several cookouts.

“We wanted to give them intentional new experiences,” Banghart said at ACC media day in uptown Charlotte on Tuesday. “Different people have different strengths and different norms, and then the organicness of their connection has been really comforting.”

Deja Kelly, a senior guard who led UNC with 16.5 points per game last year, is a key returner for Banghart’s squad, along with senior forward Alyssa Ustby.

Among the new faces is graduate student Lexi Donarski, last year’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at Iowa State. Before Donarski decided to spend her last year of eligibility in Chapel Hill, she asked the Tar Heels about their defensive mindset.

Like fellow transfers Maria Gakdeng (Boston College) and Indya Nivar (Stanford), Donarski wanted to make sure she was joining a program that favored her strengths, and North Carolina’s — on the heels of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances — fit the bill.

With five freshmen on top of those transfers, these offseason activities have gelled what Banghart called the “deepest” and “most competitive” roster in her five seasons at the helm.

“That plays just as big of role as our on-court performance,” Kelly said about her team’s offseason. “For us to be able to bond like that, be able to laugh together and go through the fun times together, we know that we’re gonna have to go through the hard times together.”

UNC, which went 22-11 and ranked No. 20 nationally in the final AP poll, could be tested early this season. It has matchups with No. 6 South Carolina on Nov. 30 and No. 2 UConn on Dec. 10. The Tar Heels will be in Charlotte on Dec. 19, taking on Oklahoma in the neutral-site Jumpman Classic.

Ustby, UNC’s senior forward who like Kelly achieved All-ACC First Team honors last season, also feels this squad is the strongest in her four years for “many” reasons, naming communication and vulnerability.

When an under-recruited Ustby arrived in 2020 from Rochester, Minnesota, she remembers being timid and nervous in such a different environment than the rural Upper Midwest. She had gone to church every Sunday throughout her life, and once she found one in Chapel Hill, people quickly started recognizing her from the hardwood and getting to know her as a person.

“I was nervous; Coming into a culture and community like Carolina attracts the best everything — whether it’s sports, academics, arts, anything,” Ustby told The Observer. “That’s one of the coolest parts. You’re in an environment where everybody’s elevating each other because of how healthy the competition is. People are constantly rooting for each other. And the support from the community has been insane.”

NC State coach wants consistency, like a popular fast food item

Every day, Wes Moore tells his North Carolina State women’s basketball team that he wants them to be like McDonald’s French fries.

Moore, who enters his 11th season with the Wolfpack, said that no matter where in the country you are, “you know what you’re getting” when ordering fries at the nationwide fast-food chain. Regardless of where N.C. State is playing, or who it’s playing against, he wants his team to be consistent.

“Even though nowadays my players may want to go with Chick-Fil-A waffle fries, I’m focused still on McDonald’s fries,” Moore told reporters. “I want us to be like that. Every night, no matter where we are, where we’re playing, where we walk in, you know what you’re gonna get.

“They’re gonna be mentally, physically tough. They’re gonna compete and play with urgency. I want us to be hot and salty. Just like those fries.”

The Wolfpack, around the middle of the conference standings last season at 20-12, were a bit inconsistent. They stunned top-25 foes like No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 17 UNC before ultimately falling to 10th-seeded Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s squad has potential to have a variety of scorers, like senior guard Madison Hayes, a strong defensive player and 3-point shooter, and Saniya Rivers, the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year last season. N.C. State opens its season against UNC Charlotte on Nov. 7.

Duke women in good spirits heading into season

On Monday night, the Duke women’s basketball players were playing a silly “clapping game” while attempting to pose for a team photo.

The players were cracking each other up, several in tears laughing, before having to awkwardly halt those smiles to take a straight-faced picture.

“We literally were in tears, dying on the floor laughing, having to wipe our tears before the next photo,” said senior center Kennedy Brown, who averaged 6.5 points last year. “But I think that just speaks to how much we enjoy being in each other’s presence. This team, we get along so well. Something as simple as that is fun to us.”

Brown is one of 20 frontcourt players nationally who were named to the Lisa Leslie Award watch list — after scoring in double figures eight times last year.

Fourth-year head coach Kara Lawson’s roster also includes Reigan Richardson, a Charlotte native who starred at Cannon School and was the 2020-21 Charlotte Observer girls’ basketball player of the year.

“Because we’re so close and tight-knit, we have that chemistry,” Richardson said. “And I feel like that really shows on the court. I feel like puts us above any other team.”

Duke finished 26-7 last year and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Wake Forest looks to keep growing in Gebbia’s second year

Megan Gebbia took the helm last year, and the Demon Deacons had their best season since 2011-12.

Wake Forest won 17 games under Gebbia’s watch, qualifying for the Women’s National Invitational Tournament and bowing out in the second round against Florida.

“I would say I was pleased with the 17 wins; I think our showing in the WNIT, I was a little disappointed,” Gebbia told The Observer. “That kind of leaves you on a sour note, because you’re always thinking about it since that was your last contest. But it also pushes you forward — recognizing the things that we didn’t do in a game like that and how we need to get better.”

Junior guard Elise Williams has been emerging as the on-court leader for Wake Forest, talking players through what’s happening on the floor and developing as a capable passer. Demeara Hinds, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, returns as a top rebounder who Gebbia hopes will have a greater scoring role this year. And graduate student Alexandria Scruggs could find herself at any position on the court, expected to take on that “utility player” role.