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UNC women's basketball's Alyssa Ustby reflects on USA Basketball 3x3 experience

Then sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby (1) looks for an open pass during a game against South Carolina in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, March 25, 2022.

On Aug. 17, USA Basketball 3x3’s Twitter account posted a video of UNC women’s basketball junior Alyssa Ustby achieving a feat she never once fully attempted in Carmichael Arena. 

Warming up in layup lines, the six-foot-one guard put the ball on the floor, took a few steps, and rose up for a dunk. 

“Dunking is something that my brothers have tried to encourage me to do ever since I was in middle school,” she said. “So, it was kind of cool that it came full circle at a USA Basketball event, getting to throw one down. But yeah, definitely something you can expect to see pretty soon here.”

However, her newly-improved hops are not the only thing Ustby will be bringing back to Chapel Hill.

In the past two months, Ustby competed for USA Basketball’s U23 3x3 National Team — a squad self-titled “The Goonies” — and was exposed to a new style of half-court basketball while facing some of the world’s most talented players. 

Ustby first got on the USA Basketball radar after competing with teammates Kennedy Todd-Williams, Alexandra Zelaya and Deja Kelly in Springfield, Massachusetts, at USA Basketball’s 3x3 Nationals in May.

UNC head coach Courtney Banghart recalled several committee members texting her during the games, impressed by how Ustby’s abilities translated to the 3x3 style of play.

“The game is fast and physical,” Banghart said. “So in terms of someone that can guard all positions of play and all spots on the floor — the versatility with only three players — there’s so much more space."

Eleven players were flown to Miami in early August for the 2022 USA Basketball 3x3 Women's U23 National Team trials. For three days, the players participated in "two-a-days" — competing in 2-hour practices in the morning and evening. On the fourth day, the USA Basketball coaches announced the team.

Eventually, Ustby was announced as the sixth and final player named to USA Basketball's initial roster for the team's six U23 Nations League stops in the Americas.

"I would compare it to a Bachelorette rose ceremony because we're all sitting in a room lined up and the coach is naming one person at a time off the list," Ustby said.

Ustby played a vital role in Team USA’s victory in the U23 Nations League Americas Conference tournament in the Dominican Republic and subsequent run in the FIBA 3x3 U23 Nations League Final in Romania. 

“Alyssa’s so quick and she reads off the ball really well," Aaliyah Moore, a sophomore forward at Texas and one of Ustby's teammates on the National Team, said. "So if I had it in my hand, she just knew when to cut, when to screen, when to get open. Her IQ is very, very up there. She knows what she’s doing.”

Fellow teammate Maddy Siegrist, a senior forward at Villanova and the 2022 Big East Player of the Year, said that Ustby did "a lot of the dirty work” for the team on defense — often matching up with the most skilled player on the opposing team. 

"Just having that confidence in her that she's going to make it really difficult for whoever she's guarding the entire possession," Siegrist said. "You know you want to continue to play just as hard when someone plays that hard all the time."

In Romania, Team USA fell to France, 21-18, in the semifinals of the FIBA 3x3 Women’s Series Final after an undefeated run in pool play. 

The final game illuminated one of the biggest lessons Ustby took away from her 3x3 experience — self-coaching. She said that making mid-game adjustments — especially on defense — was more difficult, as 3x3 coaches are only available to discuss with players at halftime. 

More than the on-court takeaways, Ustby said she is appreciative of travel opportunities that USA Basketball has given her and said they've given her a new perspective. Aside from UNC basketball’s trip to the Bahamas for last year’s Goombay Splash tournament, her trips to the Dominican Republic and Romania are the only times Ustby has been out of the country. 

“Just immersing myself in a new culture was an experience I really enjoyed," she said. "And, basketball-wise, I got to play against girls from other countries and I think that was the coolest thing, like learning about their cultures and their style of basketball is a little different, so it was a lot of fun.”

The benefits of Ustby's experience aren't just obvious to her, but also to her teammates at UNC.

"I've just seen that light up her life in that sense," UNC junior forward Alexandra Zelaya said. "She's had a lot of fun playing. Everyone says basketball, that ball will take you anywhere, and she's just living, walking proof of (that)."

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.