There’s nothing like March that brings out the best of college basketball.
Even in defeat, the UNC women’s basketball team’s 87-80 overtime loss to Virginia Tech on Friday brought out all the madness of the season for a team with almost no tournament experience.
The third-round ACC Tournament matchup in Greensboro was set to be close from the start, with UNC being the fourth seed and Virginia Tech the fifth. The two programs had split the regular-season series at one game apiece. The Tar Heels were backed by two elite players — sophomores Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby. The Hokies boasted ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, an imposing center with a dangerous touch around the rim.
However, in true tourney fashion, none of those players hit the most important shots for their respective teams at the end of regulation.
“In March, everyone brings their best,” Kelly said. “The physicality, the aggressiveness, the intensity of the game was expected.”
Kitley left the game early with a shoulder injury and wouldn’t return. Ustby started off hot, but was hampered late by foul trouble. Instead, it was their teammates who stepped up in the big moments.
In March, expect the unexpected. Look for new heroes to be made.
After playing from behind all game, Virginia Tech took its first lead, 46-45, with 1:18 left in the third quarter. The final period was a relentless exchange of buckets, the lead changing hands multiple times over ten minutes.
With the clocking quickly running out in the fourth, veteran Hokie guard Aisha Sheppard was fouled on a 3-point attempt and tied the game up at 66 points. Thirty-six seconds remained in the game.
UNC’s play blew up on the other end of the court, and Kelly missed a shot. The Hokies were awarded possession after a held ball was called, with less than seven seconds remaining.
Coming out of a timeout, Georgia Amoore, Virginia Tech’s undersized point guard, found an open lane and drove inside. She finished through contact and converted the and-1 to give her team a 69-66 lead. Less than three seconds remained.
After a UNC timeout put the inbounds at midcourt, graduate guard Carlie Littlefield passed the ball in to Ustby, who was posted up with her back to the basket. Ustby, double teamed by the Hokies’ defense, took a moment before she found what she was looking for – Eva Hodgson, a sharpshooting junior guard open on the wing. The play was perfectly executed.
The shot soared. The buzzer sounded. The net swished.
Welcome to March.
“As I told our guys, ‘I play chess, you play hoops,’” head coach Courtney Banghart said.
Hodgson fell to her knees, screaming in celebration as she was mobbed by her teammates at half court.
“After Eva’s shot, there was a lot of momentum,” Ustby said. “... And we were just trying to gather that momentum and take it into overtime with us, rather than losing our focus.”
The same physicality that had made the game so exciting for the first 40 minutes forced the game to be decided at the free-throw line down the stretch. UNC was called for seven fouls in the five-minute period, and Virginia Tech capitalized, making 13 of 15 free throw attempts to pull away.
In the final five minutes — just as Ustby had feared — the momentum didn’t stick.
Despite the early exit for UNC, this loss shouldn’t really affect their standing for the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels, ranked sixteenth in the country going into this game, will likely get a decent at-large bid when the 68-team bracket is revealed on Sunday.
In the meantime, the team will take time to learn from this loss and prepare for the big dance. Banghart and her squad are well aware of the stakes in March – they have yet to win a postseason game in her three seasons here.
“This group has learned that when you’re not good enough, it’s over,” Banghart said. “We hope this is a good ignition as we get into the big dance here soon.”
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