Leaning on one leg, teetering out of bounds, Jackson State guard Miya Crump had her last-ditch pass stuffed by UNC redshirt senior Eva Hodgson with 35 seconds remaining in North Carolina’s season-opener. As Hodgson turned to bring the ball up the court, Crump fell backwards, propped her elbows up on her team’s bench, and sat momentarily in defeat.
Hodgson, referred to by head coach Courtney Banghart as UNC’s “sixth starter” last season, earned her first official start on Wednesday night in North Carolina’s matchup against Jackson State. The graduate student, who transferred to UNC last year after two seasons at William & Mary, made her presence felt from the tipoff until the buzzer sounded at the end of the 91-59 win.
“She was basically a starter last year, so it’s no surprise,” junior Deja Kelly said. “Just to see her in that starting lineup with us and to be able to start the game with us, that adjustment worked out really well.”
The Tar Heels knew this matchup against the Tigers would be no easy feat. UNC junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams admitted that the team had been discussing JSU forward Daja Woodard — who went viral a week ago with a video of her dunking — heading into this matchup. However, the Tigers' aggressiveness in the opening minutes of the game still seemed to stun the Tar Heels.
In an opening quarter that saw several bodies hit the floor and Todd-Williams jaw with Woodard (Todd-Williams said Woodard called her “small”), it was intense to say the least. However, Hodgson was key for the Tar Heels early on, leading UNC in scoring in the opening half and embodying a calm-yet-tough demeanor that steadied the team throughout rough periods marred by a highly-physical Tigers defense.
With a little over three minutes to play in the first quarter, Hodgson — one of UNC’s best 3-point shooters last season — took and made the first 3-pointer of the season for the Tar Heels. She stuck three fingers in the air in celebration as she walked back down the court. The moment was momentum-shifting, allowing UNC to jump out to a 14-8 lead and kickstarting an 11-3 run to end the first quarter.
By halftime, Hodgson was leading the Tar Heels with 13 points. Aside from her offensive impact, Hodgson’s role as a vocal leader on the court could be heard from the stands.
Late in the first quarter, first-year guard Paulina Paris’ errant pass to Kelly bounced out of bounds due to JSU’s pressure on the perimeter. As the Tar Heels walked down the court, Hodgson turned to her teammates to let them know, “Hey, we’re good." During free throws, Hodgson called out to her squad to instruct on who would carry the ball up the court.
“I’ve really just tried to be a voice for everyone because as it helps them, it helps me just as much because I’m constantly reminding myself what I need to do,” Hodgson said.
While Todd-Williams and junior wing Alyssa Ustby caught fire late in the game, finishing the game with 20 and 19 points respectively, Hodgson’s facilitation and ball movement was critical in this. Hodgson recorded two assists to Ustby jumpers in the third quarter in a stretch that saw the small forward score on three straight UNC possessions.
“We were just all fluid,” Todd-Williams said. “We were hot. And obviously, practicing for a while now, we’re able to read those sequences and take care of the ball and find the hot players.”
Even when she was off the court, Hodgson carried the energy of the Tar Heels — offering high-fives to teammates exiting the court and hitting The Griddy on the sideline following a 3-pointer from junior Alexandra Zelaya.
There was a lot to celebrate in this season-opener for UNC, as four Tar Heels ended the night in double figures.
The 91-59 win is made more impressive considering who was absent from the court. Redshirt first-years Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key were sidelined, although Banghart said that fans will see Key “very soon.” Ustby, playing limited minutes, recorded a double-double and 19 points in just 19 minutes of playing time.
While the North Carolina lineup is a bit atypical for now, Hodgson’s new starting role will continue to be a consistent spark for the Tar Heels as they move into the rest of their nonconference schedule.
“I think for her the role last year was be whatever we need (her) to be and I think this year she’s got to do a little bit of the same,” Banghart said. “Now she’s just doing it when the ball’s thrown up in the air."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.