As North Carolina women’s basketball sophomore guard Deja Kelly walked into the press room at McKale Memorial Center for her postgame interview, the first words from her mouth were familiar ones for UNC fans.
“Great day to be a Tar Heel.”
If you were anyone on the No. 5 seed Tar Heels, Saturday certainly was a great day to be a Tar Heel, but especially if your name was Deja Kelly. In a 79-66 first round NCAA Tournament win over No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin in Tucson, Ariz., Kelly led the Tar Heels to victory with 28 points — the second-best scoring outing of her career.
Though it was only her second tournament appearance ever, Kelly's poise helped the UNC squad secure its first NCAA Tournament win — also its first March Madness win since 2015.
“We had an important meeting yesterday to just get her in the right space,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. ”To put up 28 in an NCAA Tournament game as a sophomore is remarkable. She came here to bring Carolina as far as she could do it, and she’s doing a pretty darn good job of that.”
In Kelly's first appearance in the tournament, the Tar Heels lost 80-71 against Alabama, and Kelly shot a dismal 1-13 from the field for just seven points. But with another year of experience under her belt, Kelly has significantly improved on that mark — going 8-for-15 from the field against the Ladyjacks, as well as making all eight shots from the charity stripe.
On Saturday, the shooting inconsistencies that have bothered Kelly this season were nowhere to be found. Every time she had the ball in her hands, it was almost guaranteed to go in. Multiple times throughout the game, Stephen F. Austin sagged off Kelly on the 3-point line, daring her to find that stability in her shot.
With four made threes on seven tries, she made them pay.
“When I pass to Deja, I trust she’s going to make the right read, and she’s consistently shown me to do that,” sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby said. “I just know as soon as I pass it to her, I’m ready to box out just in case she misses, but she doesn’t miss often.”
Along with Kelly and Ustby, two other members of the starting lineup for UNC are sophomores, with the lone upperclassmen being graduate guard Carlie Littlefield. Despite the team's youth, they’ve shown throughout this season they can keep up with seasoned teams in ways last season's Tar Heels simply couldn’t.
Last year, UNC was unable to win a tough tournament matchup against an experienced Crimson Tide team. This year, against the upset-minded Ladyjacks who only suffered four losses all season, the Tar Heels battled through adversity and claimed the victory.
“I feel like every team we play has like five fifth-year seniors because of COVID,” Banghart said. “This is a similar team. (Stephen F. Austin) has a ton of experience, a ton of NCAA experience and so luckily that story’s been told. Every team we’ve played in the ACC all have an impactful COVID senior, and we’ve got our sophomores rolling through.”
With a second-round game set for Monday against the host team in No. 4 seed Arizona, the Tar Heels' journey through the NCAA Tournament field is just getting started — at least, they hope so.
As far as Saturday night goes, though, a high-scoring performance from Kelly and a postseason win against a strong squad are things worth celebrating.
Sitting before the media after her huge performance, Kelly made her feelings about the game crystal-clear.
“We pulled out this win, which I'm super happy about, by the way,” she said.
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