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UNC women's basketball dominates USC Upstate at home before slate of high-profile matchups

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UNC first-year guard Paulina Paris (2) dribbles the ball during the women's basketball game against the Wofford Terriers in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.

The No. 7  North Carolina women’s basketball team will face three ranked opponents in its next five games. If anything, Friday’s 89-47 victory over USC-Upstate proved the Tar Heels are primed for what comes next. 

The theme of Friday’s game was dominance, and as conference games and ranked opponents are starting to show up on the schedule, it came at a time in the season when the Tar Heels needed to confirm that they deserve their top-ten ranking.

The team shattered its season shooting average, going an impressive 60.7 percent from the field. UNC’s depth was on full display, with 10 players on the board and three putting up double-digits, including first-year guard Paulina Paris, who had a career-high 15 points.

Paris has scored double-digits in just one other game this season, when she tallied 13 against Jackson State. Following Friday's blowout victory, she said her last few games had been a “struggle” in terms of knocking down shots, but her teammates pushed her to keep shooting.

“Paulina, man. That kid just keeps stacking days,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “You keep stacking days, sooner or later it’s gonna fall, and it was fun to see that tonight.”

Paris, one of the youngest players on the roster, got several looks off assists from redshirt senior Eva Hodgson, one of team's most seasoned veterans. Aside from being paired together in the team’s buddy system, Paris said Hodgson has also taken her in like a younger sister and has contributed to the confidence that she's found on the court.

Banghart also praised Hodgson’s leadership on the floor, describing her as a tough player who is active defensively. Hodgson backed up that statement at the end of the second quarter, when she had back-to-back inbound steals that were both converted to easy buckets.

“That kid’s a competitor,” Banghart said. “She’s a leader, and it showed.” 

While the offense flowed and shots were falling for the Tar Heels, the defense came in waves. Hodgson said there were moments where the players weren’t in the right positions to force turnovers and snag steals, but that the team is still piecing it together. 

With tougher competition to get their attention, she believes they will step up their game.

“Defense is huge for us,” Hodgson said. “It’s what fuels our offense, so to be able to get our hands in the passing gaps, and to be able to be in the right positions and to make them pick up the ball and make tough passes, that’s what we need to do in order for us to get the buckets that we want.”

Junior guard Deja Kelly agreed. Kelly, who led the team with 20 points, said the team is getting good looks offensively, but needs to pick up the intensity and “tighten up on the defensive end.”

“Knowing that these teams are gonna try to come and punch us first, we want to be known as the team that is annoying defensively, just like we were last year,” Kelly said.

The Spartans had just 12 points in the paint, compared to the Tar Heels’ 48, which had a lot to do with UNC’s stark height advantage over its opponent. 

The Spartans played just two player that was six feet or taller, while UNC played eight. Spartans point guard Nyla Walker stood at just 5-foot-4 — four inches shorter than Kelly, UNC's smallest player on the floor that night. As a result, USC-Upstate relied heavily on perimeter shots offensively and taking charges on defense.

“We didn’t adjust initially, and they got several charges on us, which kind of threw us off,” Hodgson said. “But once you get into a rhythm of it, you just expect like, ‘Okay, I have to go through contact,’ and the refs aren’t as likely to give us the calls that we want just because of that height advantage and skill-level difference. For us, it was really just using our body in the right way and not giving the refs any reason to call anything against us.”

As the No. 7 team in the country, UNC may have expected to dominate an unranked team. But if the Tar Heels want wins against No. 19 Michigan, No. 6 Virginia Tech and No. 5 Notre Dame in the coming weeks, they’ll need to do what they did right on Friday and also work on what they can do better. 

“It’s exciting,” Hodgson said. “That’s why we came here — to play against top-20 teams and to be a top-20 team. So, for us, this is what it’s about, and we’re just excited to get rolling.”

@evemaddock

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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