After the COVID-19 pandemic shook the sports world, UNC women’s basketball player Alyssa Ustby was ecstatic to finally play in front of fans in the team’s season opener against North Carolina A&T on Tuesday.
“All this time it’s felt like glorified practices without any fans,” Ustby said. “I’m nervous but excited.”
The pandemic has kept the sophomore guard from playing in front of fans for the better part of a year. In her first season at UNC, Ustby played 719 minutes — the most on the team. While she felt ready to step into her role and fill a gap, she also questioned herself and wondered how she would prove her value to the team.
Originally from Rochester, Minn., Ustby attended Lourdes High School and was a tri-sport athlete, playing softball and soccer in addition to basketball. She chose not to specialize in basketball, having a lot of success on other sports teams, such as when her softball team won a state championship.
“I definitely credit my athleticism to my ability to stay healthy and being a multi-sport athlete,” she said.
She grew up in a basketball environment, attending her three older brothers' practices at a young age. She first picked up a basketball in second grade. From there, she found herself regularly making appearances at the gym and on the court, all marking the beginning of her love for the sport — a love that took her from Minnesota to North Carolina.
‘Pride ourselves on being a sisterhood’
The transition to North Carolina was not a natural one for Ustby, who was unsure how she would fit in as a small-town girl from Minnesota. That transition, however, was made easier by one thing — the support from her team.
“It was kind of bizarre coming here at first, but my teammates helped me through it," Ustby said. "They helped me grow and they were constantly encouraging me."
After witnessing its family atmosphere, she was confident she wanted to make UNC her school of choice.
“I think we definitely pride ourselves on being a sisterhood and there is always positive energy on our team which is a rare, yet great, feeling,” Ustby said.
In high school, Ustby looked up to former UNC guard Taylor Koenen, who graduated in 2020. They played in the same AAU program, Minnesota Fury, and Ustby wears the No. 1 pridefully, just like Koenen wore during her playing career at UNC.
“She was that one person you always heard about, and I always looked up to her because I wanted to be just like her,” Ustby said. “I set goals to be where she was, and I achieved them. It’s super meaningful.”
This year, the team welcomed four new first-years to the roster: Teonni Key, Kayla McPherson, Destiny Adams and Morasha Wiggins. By going out to eat and attending football games together, the sense of team bonding that Ustby received in her first year continued with the new group of players behind her.
‘She’s a beast’
Ustby came to UNC as a three-star recruit and was not listed in ESPN’s 2020 Women’s Basketball Recruiting Rankings. Despite her name being missing from the list, head coach Courtney Banghart saw something in the then-high school athlete.
“She was the lowest-ranked kid in her class and totally underrated, but I saw a high-motor, competitive and versatile athlete who had incredible footwork,” Banghart said. “She’s a beast, and I knew I could build her up.”
Banghart has done just that, but Ustby’s unquestionable commitment to her personal health and fitness is a notable factor in her success.
Ustby’s day-to-day schedule consists of classes between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. followed by a two-hour practice and one-hour lift. Even on her off days, she dedicates herself to meeting with her positional coach, watching film on other teams and getting treatment.
She also uses these rest days to catch up with her schoolwork, admitting that maintaining a balance between school and basketball can be challenging. Nevertheless, her work ethic still translates on the court and in the classroom as she earned a spot on the 2020-21 ACC Academic Honor Roll.
To hear her coach tell it, whether it's on the court or in the classroom, she's relentless.
“She’s an easy kid to root for," Banghart said. "Her athleticism is great because she is able to make necessary changes to her play. Her body is that athletic.”
During the 2020-21 season, Ustby averaged 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds, started in 17 games and played in all 24. She was also recognized on the Cheryl Miller Award 2022 preseason watch list, an award that acknowledges the nation’s top small forward.
Banghart said she hopes Ustby could progress into a first-round draft pick for the WNBA and believes that her work ethic will get her there, but she is not the only one who sees Ustby’s potential.
Ustby’s close friend and teammate, forward Alexandra Zelaya, said she notices how hard Ustby works every day.
“Alyssa is very hardworking," Zelaya said. "You can feel her competitive energy."
Ustby and Zelaya came to UNC as first-years together in 2020. Coming in, they were both new to everything, struggling to learn more about themselves and the environment around them. COVID-19 made it difficult to meet new people, so they sought to do something together that was not basketball.
“COVID brought social, mental and physical challenges,” Zelaya said. “We learned a lot about our friendship during that time and she’s always someone I can laugh and smile with.”
Ustby’s pregame ritual includes preparing herself both emotionally and mentally. She places extra emphasis on ensuring that she is in a good mental state prior to the game. With the team pushing to win a conference title this season, all that preparation will be necessary, but she knows she can handle it.
“I know we can win ACC championships," Ustby said. "We have all of the right pieces to win, and now it’s about continuing to work hard. There’s a lot of excitement about this season.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.