The No. 5 seed North Carolina women’s basketball team (24-6, 13-5 ACC) started off its NCAA Tournament with a 79-66 win over No. 12 Stephen F. Austin on Saturday at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Stephen F. Austin scored the game’s first points, but sophomore guard Deja Kelly quickly answered by nailing a 3-pointer while getting fouled, which put UNC up two points with just one possession. After two made baskets from sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby, UNC found itself up 8-3 two minutes into the game.
The Ladyjacks answered back with a 3-pointer and a layup to tie the game. After both teams traded scores to put the score at 10 apiece, the two teams traded five-point runs with graduate guard Carlie Littlefield and sophomore guard Kennedy Todd-Williams helping the Tar Heels to go on a 5-0 run before Stephen F. Austin answered right back.
For the next two minutes, both defenses kept the scoring in check before Deja Kelly ended the scoring drought with a long 2-pointer. Ladyjacks guard Zya Nugent came right back down the floor and nailed a three to put them up 18-17. The defenses again ramped up and the scoring was silenced for the rest of the first quarter aside from one made free throw for UNC.
SFA’s full-court press gave UNC fits to begin the second quarter, which led to two UNC turnovers. Their offense took advantage of the Tar Heels struggles, going on a 10-0 run in the first three minutes of the quarter before Ustby ended UNC’s drought with a jumper. After the Ustby basket, North Carolina and SFA matched each other in points up into the first TV timeout.
After the media timeout, shooting inefficiency plagued both sides with multiple shots clanging off the rim. When the buzzer for halftime sounded, the Tar Heels found themselves within three points, 36-33, thanks to made shots from Todd-Williams and Littlefield.
The Ladyjacks opened the second half strong scoring five straight points before Todd-Williams nailed a 3-pointer to trim SFA’s lead to five. Kelly and Nugent traded triples and opened up the offensive scoring for the teams. After Kelly’s three, the teams scored a combined 21 points in three minutes with a trio of made threes from both teams in the span of 38 seconds, bringing the score to 54-50 in favor of the Ladyjacks.
A scoring drought ensued though for the next two minutes before North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart decided to regroup her team by calling a timeout. With 43 seconds left in the period, the Tar Heels tied the game at 54 before two made free throws from Nugent put Stephen F. Austin up two going in the final quarter.
Coming into the fourth quarter, UNC came out running, scoring four straight points and playing solid defense, forcing the Ladyjacks to call a timeout just two minutes in. After the timeout, UNC kept scoring and shut down SFA, outscoring the Ladyjacks 10-3 in the three-minute span, forcing SFA head coach Mark Kellogg to call another timeout with his team down 68-59.
Stephen F. Austin tried to fight back but with every basket, UNC responded. With 2:18 to play, Nugent was called for a charge and subsequently was given a technical foul, giving UNC the chance to go up 12 with just over two minutes left in the game. UNC added onto the lead as a result of desperation fouls from the Ladyjacks and pulled away to a 79-66 win.
Who stood out?
Kelly led UNC to the victory, scoring 28 points, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line and adding four 3-pointers. Nugent shined for the Ladyjacks, scoring 26 points, including five made threes.
When was it decided?
After Nugent was called for a charge and a technical with 2:18 to go, UNC was able to go up 12 points and put the game away with free throws.
Why does it matter?
The win is North Carolina’s first opening-round victory since 2015 when UNC beat Liberty at Carmichael Arena, 71-65. Also, the momentum UNC brought into the fourth quarter into the end of the game will help the team in its matchup in the next round after a slow start on Saturday.
When do they play next?
After the win, the Tar Heels await the winner of No.4 Arizona vs. No.13 UNLV and play in the second round on Monday.
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