Following its 79-66 win over Stephen F. Austin on Saturday, the No. 5 seed UNC women’s basketball team will face the sub-regional host and last year’s NCAA tournament runners-up, the Arizona Wildcats on Monday.
With the absence of notable players like Aari McDonald and Trinity Baptiste, the Wildcats are now lacking last season’s leading scorer and leading rebounder, respectively. Still, Arizona was able to earn a No. 4 seed in the tournament and enter its first game with a 20-7 record.
On the other hand, North Carolina came into Saturday’s game not having played since March 4. As a result, UNC’s first round game against SFA started out rocky, but ultimately proved to be a great tester for Monday’s matchup.
The Ladyjacks post the No. 1 turnover margin in the nation and ran their 2-2-1 full-court press against UNC for nearly 40 minutes on Saturday.
“(SFA) allowed us to shake off the rust from not having played in two weeks and to play against a press that we haven’t seen before,” redshirt junior Eva Hodgson said. “Tomorrow we’ll just re-attack with that in mind.”
Going into Monday’s game against Arizona, the Pac-12 leaders in scoring defense and turnovers forced, UNC should feel more confident in facing high-pressure defense.
Here are two keys for the Tar Heels if they wish to return to Greensboro to avenge their ACC Tournament loss earlier this month.
Pellington v. Kelly
In an exciting point guard matchup, Arizona’s Shaina Pellington will be facing off against sophomore Deja Kelly on Monday.
Like Kelly, Pellington is coming off a stunning performance against UNLV, matching her season-high 30 points. Kelly is also coming off of a notable performance on Saturday, scoring 28 points in the second-best scoring outing of her career.
“It’s gonna be a matchup on both teams where we both have to control the point guards,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “I think North Carolina goes when Deja goes, and we go when Shaina goes. We both have to slow each other's point guards down.”
Pellington is a slasher, whose ability to finish around the rim led her to Saturday’s 30-point performance. Kelly, on the other hand, tends to rely on her jumper and has some of the most lethal mid-range skills in the nation.
Sophomores Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole need to be ready to step up and move their feet in the low post to defend against Pellington’s arsenal of moves.
On the other side of the ball, Kelly needs to see some jumpers fall early. With the help of ball screens from teammates and a fine-tuned focus on her mid-range strengths, Kelly could produce another lights-out performance against the Wildcats.
Silencing the crowd
On Monday night, a likely sold-out crowd at the McKale Memorial Center will be a huge atmospheric factor of the game.
“I think the crowd size definitely creates an advantage for Arizona,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “Their positives feel more positive and ours don't feel as positive, if you allow the noise to be a part of it.”
The center has a capacity of roughly 14,500, and it sat 9,600 attendees in Arizona’s Saturday night game. The key to facing this crowd is, as Banghart noted, for the Tar Heels to not let the noise get to them.
Considering the players’ responses in Sunday’s press conference, it might just add fuel to the fire.
“I'm really looking forward to it,” Ustby said. “I think our team is going to have a lot of fun playing in that crowd for sure.”
UNC was able to stay competitive throughout several back-and-forth runs in Saturday’s game against the Ladyjacks. The ability for the Tar Heels to keep their energy high, even amidst scoring droughts, will be key to silencing the Wildcat crowd — and to coming from Monday night with a win.
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