It was the legendary Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight who said “Good basketball always starts with good defense.”
On an afternoon where the UNC and Syracuse women’s basketball teams both struggled with shooting, the No. 24 Tar Heels relied on the stellar defense that has helped them throughout their undefeated season.
The Tar Heels would use this defense to steadily grow their lead throughout the game and secure a 79-43 over the Orange — making their record 12-0 thus far this season.
In an era of finesse basketball where many teams live and die by the 3-point shot, the Tar Heels demonstrated their versatility when their 3-pointers refused to fall. The result was a tough, gritty game in which the Tar Heels beat the Orange through sheer physicality on the interior.
On the occasions in which the Tar Heels failed to score, they attacked the boards for a season-high 26 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points.
When Syracuse later switched into a zone to try and limit UNC in the paint, the Tar Heels took advantage of their height and passing to find holes in the defense.
“We took advantage of their size,” sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. “... I think just us just being able to get into the high post and be able to duck down really worked for us."
Syracuse entered the game with a rotation that was reduced from 11 players to seven due to COVID-19. COVID-19 protocols also caused two of Syracuse’s top five scorers this season to be ineligible for the game.
The absence of roster depth was apparent as the Orange shot an abysmal 21 percent from the field, far below their season average of 44 percent, and were outscored 42-18 in the second half.
As the game entered its latter stages, the Tar Heels’ physicality meant the Orange simply weren't able to keep up.
“This is that kind of year, we practiced with seven for most of this break," North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart said. “Every game night, as much this year as any other year, it’s who do you have versus who do they have. We know there might be some games where we have seven, and our seven is going to give it all that we have.”
One of the keys to the Tar Heels' success against Syracuse was their ability to force turnovers and score on the fast break.
UNC’s ability to quickly turn defense into offense allowed them to kill Syracuse’s momentum any time the Orange strung together a series of baskets, preventing any serious threats of a comeback. Sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby was a major contributor to the team’s transition offense, registering a team-high six assists.
"Just getting stops, that kind of helps our momentum on offense," Ustby said. "It’s basketball, shots aren’t gonna fall, so one thing we hold constant is our pride on defense and playing together, and that’s what really propelled us to start producing on offense."
All was not perfect for the Tar Heels, though, as they struggled to shoot outside the paint, registering their second-worst performances from both the 3-point line and free throw line this season, while committing 12 turnovers of their own.
Now, the Tar Heels will move into the rest of a tough conference schedule, where they will hope to keep their strong defensive effort going while reducing the mistakes that will cost them against top ACC teams.
“It was a gritty win," Ustby said. "These are not pretty, and we know it’s not pretty when we’re playing. We see the turnovers, we see the messy fumble catches and we saw it, and we tried our best to make adjustments — and we made enough of an adjustment to come out with the win."
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