When Deja Kelly steps foot on the court, there’s one mantra she repeats to herself: "Do whatever it takes to win."
The junior guard has implemented this mentality in every game that she's played, and it has certainly shown. Going into her third season with the UNC women's basketball team, she's been named to both the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list — honoring the nation's best point guard — and the preseason All-ACC Team.
Despite these high expectations, she still isn't satisfied.
“I definitely have a lot of personal goals — being on these preseason lists were definitely a few — but eventually based off of the team's success, hopefully those individual accolades will come. My main focus is the team goals,” she said. “(The goal is) to win an ACC title and then it's to make it farther than we did in March (last year).”
Last year, Kelly averaged a team-high 16.5 points per game and showed remarkable consistency and resilience throughout her sophomore season.
“Deja is one of the fiercer competitors you'll ever meet,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “Her level of competitiveness allows her to rise to the moment of the possession, on either end of the ball.”
This relentless drive is one that led the team to a Sweet 16 appearance after flying under the radar for most of the regular season. Kelly scored 28 points in the first round of the tournament to clinch a win and then continued to impress throughout the next two games.
To her though, North Carolina is just getting started.
“That wasn't our peak,” she said of last year's tournament run. “We have a lot more work to do, so I think that's the most exciting part.”
In order to achieve these aspirations in the fast-approaching season, Kelly has placed an emphasis on sharing her “whatever it takes” mentality with the rest of the team, which has already been beneficial.
“I think Deja takes on the role of the challenger,” Banghart said. “Sometimes people that are challengers can run the risk of not being adored by their teammates. She doesn't worry about that. She worries about making sure that our team is competitive and relentless, and I think that people are really understanding that that comes from the right place for her.”
Kelly understands success doesn't come without adversity and recognizes that in order to get through hard times, you must dig deep. This is something that she herself has dealt with not all that long ago.
Last year, Kelly started the year off hot, but then hit a cold spell at the beginning of conference play, failing to score in double-figures three games in a row. However, she was able to bounce back strongly for the final half of regular and postseason play; she helped the team nearly upset eventual national champion South Carolina in the Tar Heels' final game of the year.
She credits her ability to respond to her resilient and relentless mentality, something she strives to share with her teammates.
“I try to instill that mentality in everyone. We all have the same goals at the end of the day and that's winning,” Kelly said.
Kelly doesn't only push the team — she also answers their questions and offers them valuable insight into the game.
“She's someone that our entire team, not just any of us juniors, can turn to and ask her a question,” junior wing Alyssa Ustby said. “She's just very knowledgeable about the game and she knows what needs to be done in order to win and that's a huge part of our success.”
Kelly said her devotion to practicing and watching film are key parts of her high basketball IQ. But on top of that, she also credits the opportunity to grow with her team for the past two seasons.
When Kelly entered her first year, she was accompanied by four other players who now comprise the core of the team. They have been able to foster a deep connection that has allowed them to play as a single formidable unit.
“They've all sort of been there with one another as they've been on this journey. They've also been on the highest of highs together and were critical pieces of our success,” Banghart said. “The sky’s the limit when they stay together.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming games, Kelly believes that a combination of this team unity and winning mentality will be the key to them achieving their goals. And this year those goals mean a little bit more to her than in the past.
Kelly, a San Antonio native, would love to go home to Texas for the NCAA Final Four, which will be hosted in Dallas this year.
“I think now, especially (with) the Final Four being in Dallas, I think that's even more motivation for me personally because I know my whole family, my friends would all show up and show out to that,” Kelly said. “I think it's definitely something everyone has dreamed of.”
She’s made it her goal to make sure that North Carolina does everything it is capable of to get to the Lone Star State in March, and has taken it upon herself to lead by example.
“I’m really, really gonna work to help us get there,” she said.
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