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Thursday December 8th

UNC women's basketball looks to fend off Stephen F. Austin upset in NCAA Tournament

UNC sophomore guard Deja Kelly (25) looks to the basket during the quarterfinals of the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament against Virginia Tech at the Greensboro Coliseum. Virginia Tech won 87-80 in overtime.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore guard Deja Kelly (25) looks to the basket during the quarterfinals of the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament against Virginia Tech at the Greensboro Coliseum. Virginia Tech won 87-80 in overtime.

Come March, no game is guaranteed and every second is earned.

The North Carolina women’s team learned this harsh lesson when its pursuit of winning an ACC title was cut short in Greensboro following an opening round loss to Virginia Tech. However, the No. 5 seed Tar Heels’ postseason journey continues into the NCAA Tournament where they’ll square off against No. 12 Stephen F. Austin in the first round on Saturday night.

Here are three keys that could help the Tar Heels fend off the Lumberjacks’ upset bid.

Handle the pressure

In a game of this magnitude, pressure is inevitable. 

The bright lights and electric crowds all equate to immense pressure — especially for a team that rosters only two active players who’ve competed in a NCAA Tournament with spectators.

But in this game, pressure has an even deeper meaning.

The Lumberjacks play a gritty and aggressive style of defense that has helped them boast the best turnover margin in the country. 

How do they achieve such a high margin? Full court pressure.

After almost every made basket for Lumberjacks, they align into their 2-2-1 full-court press. For Tar Heels, strong ball handling from guards Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Carlie Littlefield will be vital in minimizing turnovers and breaking the press.

Moreover, the middle of the zone is an area that North Carolina will need to exploit, and with guard Alyssa Ustby at its disposal, the do-it-all sophomore could thrive inside the zone with her strong ability to pass and dribble under pressure. 

Get Deja Kelly going

Kelly is the heartbeat of the Tar Heels’ offense.

The former five-star prospect leads the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game, while also sharing the team lead in assists with Littlefield.

Needless to say, where Kelly goes, the Tar Heel offense follows.

But despite her stellar offensive numbers — which earned the sophomore guard All-ACC First Team honors — Kelly possesses one glaring weakness: efficiency.

Of UNC’s top nine scorers, she ranks last in field goal percentage at 35.6. Kelly has shown she can get into dismal shooting slumps seen in two games against Duke, when she scored a combined nine points on 3-28 shooting, and in a home matchup against N.C. State when she was held scoreless and missed all 11 of her shot attempts. 

There’s no denying Kelly is one of UNC’s most gifted players on the offensive end, as she possesses the ability to beat you off the dribble and has one of the most lethal mid-range games in the country. And, in games where Kelly’s seen her struggles heightened, it hasn’t been a product of poor shot selection, but shot location. 

Kelly tends to fall in love with the deep ball early on in games — which she shoots at a respectable 35.3 percent — but her aforementioned mid-range package and elite free throw shooting should be focuses for her in this matchup. 

If the San Antonio native stays true to her strengths, she can help UNC race past the pesky Lumberjack defense.

Exploit mismatches

The marquee matchup that could potentially decide who comes out on top will be between Ustby and the Lumberjacks' sharp-shooting guard, Stephanie Visscher. 

Visscher is the leading scorer for Stephen F. Austin at 14.3 points per game, but more importantly, she shoots the 3-point shot at a notable 38.2 percent clip. Standing at 6 feet tall, the senior guard uses her tall stature to shoot over opposing teams' guards. 

But the Tar Heels match up well against the Mid-Major Player of the Year semifinalist. Ustby, a 6-foot-1-inch guard, tends to be on the opposing team’s best player. For this game, she’ll likely defend Visscher, who may struggle to get her potent 3-point shot past the taller and stronger Ustby.

Offensively, Ustby could exploit a potential matchup with Visscher with an array of post moves and finishes that can overwhelm the Lumberjack guard.

This, along with other favorable matchups, could help North Carolina overpower the Lumberjacks and advance to the second round.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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