Different country. Different environment. Different game.
The Tar Heels found themselves in a tropical paradise late in November, and instead of an arena, they walked out to a small, yet loud gym — reminiscent of their high school days.
To top it off, the Tar Heels were in a close game against VCU, experiencing their first tight contest of the season.
Unfamiliar best describes the beginning of the Goombay Splash tournament for the UNC women’s basketball team, who before Friday, beat its opponents by an average of just under 45 points per game — the second-best scoring margin in the country.
The Tar Heels experienced uncharacteristic offensive struggles early on, shooting 26 percent and missing all five of their three-point attempts in the first quarter. Throughout the rest of the game, VCU gave UNC all it could handle by catching fire from three and keeping pressure on the Tar Heel offense to respond and deliver.
And the Tar Heels did exactly that — responding to the challenge and picking up a 72-59 victory.
First, there was the second quarter run by VCU that cut a 10-point UNC lead to three just two minutes before halftime. In those last two minutes, sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby took control of the game, finishing an and-one drive to the basket and sinking a jumper to put the Tar Heels back up by six at the break.
For Ustby, responding to these runs was about poise.
“You’re gonna make a run and we’ll make a run,” Ustby said. “You’ve got to be calm when the other team starts making a run and just go back to your principles.”
Then, there was the third quarter explosion by Taya Robinson of VCU that gave the Rams the lead. The Tar Heels’ offensive response was a team effort with two mid-range jumpers by sophomore guard Deja Kelly, a 3-pointer by redshirt junior guard Eva Hodgson and easy layups from Ustby and sophomore guard Kennedy Todd-Williams.
To secure the win, the Tar Heels responded on the defensive end in the fourth quarter, holding the Rams to 14 points — their lowest total since the first. UNC began to frustrate its opponent by causing offensive fouls and eliminating the open looks given all game.
Head coach Courtney Banghart was pleased with how her team handled the adversity.
“They just stuck with it,” Banghart said.
Banghart said she was proud of her team for how they overcame the blaring crowd and their struggles to get into a rhythm. She emphasized the trust her team had for each other to match and control the intensity of the game.
“I think the biggest thing that helped us kind of navigate the ups and downs of that game was huddling up after like a foul call or before a free throw,” Ustby said. “In those huddles, we all encourage each other like, ‘Hey guys, we got this.’”
One of the more significant takeaways from this game was how well prepared the Tar Heels were, considering this was the first time they’ve had to give their all for 40 minutes. Banghart and the coaching staff had the players aware of what they were getting into and how they needed to stay calm in a close battle, which paid off for the team in the end.
“We knew coming in, they’re a great team,” graduate guard Carlie Littlefield said. “They have a lot of good guards — a lot of good pieces, so we knew that they were going to go on their runs.”
As Banghart said, this is a team to be proud of going forward.
“As a player, I felt totally in control of the game because of how much preparation that coaches put in the scout and just overall preparing our principles,” Ustby said.
Of course, it’s a player’s game. And Friday night in Bimini, they were the ones that went out and executed to pull out a win.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.