BLACKSBURG, Va. — Deja Kelly was slow to get up.
The junior point guard wasn’t hurt, but when she hit the floor with 1:23 remaining in the game, she heard the whistle and knew her time was up. After driving right into the chest of senior guard Cayla King, Kelly was called for a charge and fouled out of the game.
It was the just third time Kelly has fouled out in her UNC career.
“When Cayla took that last charge against Deja, I couldn’t even tell that she took the charge because the crowd noise was the same from when that play began to when it finished,” Virginia Tech guard Georgia Amoore said. “It was insane. I had goosebumps the whole time.”
The charge call — Kelly's third offensive foul of Sunday's matchup — was a turning point for the Hokies. Virginia Tech outscored UNC 3-1 in the final minute of Sunday’s matchup to claim a narrow 68-65 victory. The top-15 ACC battle was influenced by calls just like this, as Kelly and Ustby battled through foul trouble for much of the game.
In the first quarter, Ustby quickly picked up two fouls. After sitting out for over 11 minutes in the first half, Ustby was called for two additional fouls in the first five minutes of the third quarter.
“I think (Ustby) had her first foul when she came out of the locker room and she had another one when she came out at halftime,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I don’t know why. She’s the nicest kid in sneakers. I just don’t know why the kid got picked on.”
While UNC didn’t crumble without Ustby in the game, the Tar Heels certainly missed her presence. The junior was incredibly efficient, recording 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 24 minutes of playing time.
Ustby came out hot, showing a deep bag of post moves to help the Tar Heels outscore the Hokies 14-11 before being subbed out in the first quarter. After that, the Hokies outscored UNC 26-21 to enter halftime with a slim 37-35 lead.
Ultimately, just like UNC’s last battle against the Hokies in the 2022 ACC Tournament quarterfinals, the game came down to the wire.
“Anytime we get together with Carolina, we probably could save everybody a lot of time (by) just putting five minutes on the clock and saying, ‘Hey, let’s just see who wins the last five minutes,’ Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said.
The tightly-contested final stretch made Kelly’s absence and Ustby’s foul trouble that much more damning for the Tar Heels.
To the rest of the team’s credit, junior forward Anya Poole was able to tie the game at 65 apiece with under a minute remaining. On the next play, several Tar Heels swarmed senior center Elizabeth Kitley to force a critical turnover.
First-year Paulina Paris also stepped up for the Tar Heels, recording nine points in the final quarter on a 3-pointer and various shifty drives to the basket.
“It was awesome,” Kelly said of Paris’ performance. “It was like watching her grow up before our eyes, mid-game.”
Despite key players stepping up, UNC’s leading scorer had to look on from the bench as Poole was stuffed by senior forward D'asia Gregg on what could've been the winning basket with less than 20 seconds remaining.
On the subsequent defensive sequence, Ustby was unable to help as the Tar Heels had to scramble to foul Amoore while she dribbled out the clock.
“There were about eight seconds (left) and I did smack her,” Paris said. “But then (Amoore) bounced back out and they didn’t call anything… I should’ve went and just fouled her and smacked her again.”
Following what appeared to be a missed intentional foul committed by Paris, junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams fouled Amoore as she rose up from behind the arc. This sent Amoore to the line where she made three free throws to seal the game at 68-65 with less than two seconds remaining.
In what was a possession game that included 26 lead changes, Banghart made it clear that her team wasn’t going to blame the referees for Sunday's loss. However, it was obvious that the Tar Heels left the Virginia Tech Carilion Court with a sour taste in their mouths.
“There were some things that I don’t want to be fined for, but I’ll just say that there were some questionable things that we had to kind of work through throughout the game,” Banghart said.
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