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Saturday February 4th

Defense fuels No. 22 UNC women's basketball's 60-50 upset of No. 4 Notre Dame

UNC junior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) shoots during the women's basketball game against Notre Dame on Sunday, Jan. 8 at Carmichael Arena. UNC beat Notre Dame 60-50.
Buy Photos UNC junior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) shoots during the women's basketball game against Notre Dame on Sunday, Jan. 8 at Carmichael Arena. UNC beat Notre Dame 60-50.

On Sunday, the No. 22 North Carolina women’s basketball team secured its first conference win and its second win over a top-five team in the country —  defeating No. 4 Notre Dame, 60-50.

After falling short in consecutive close games against then-No. 7 Virginia Tech and Miami, the Tar Heels’ defensive performance helped them change the narrative and snap their four-game losing streak.

“They've leaned into losing some close games late but not losing faith,” head coach Courtney Banghart said.

Coming into the matchup, Notre Dame was ranked ninth nationally in scoring and fifth in shooting percentage. However, this offense was muted by UNC’s disruptive defense. 

North Carolina continued its shooting struggles on Sunday — shooting under 37 percent from the field — and leaned on its defensive prowess instead. The Tar Heels held the Fighting Irish to a 28 percent clip, including a 2 for 22 success rate from behind the arc. 

The Tar Heels had seven blocks – tied for the second-most of the season, just short of their 10 blocks against Iowa State. Junior forward Alyssa Ustby and sophomore forward Destiny Adams had three blocks apiece, with Ustby adding three steals to contribute to a total of 10 for the team.

“I told them at halftime, I said, ‘It starts with the defense and is going to end with the offense,’” Banghart said. “And defensively, I thought we gave ourselves a chance.”

UNC’s defense was hot from the start, holding Notre Dame to just seven points: a season-low scoring total for a quarter. 

Banghart described the team’s matchup zone as an “amoeba,” as it actively shifted in response to what the offense presented. 

The zone – which junior forward Anya Poole said the team calls “three” – presents similarly to a 1-2-2 defense, but is really a 3-2 with the guards up top covering free throw line and above, and the two posts moving “on a string” to prevent easy layups.

The zone effectively slowed down Notre Dame’s shots and helped the Tar Heels limit key players like Maddy Westbeld and Lauren Ebo to four and seven points respectively, despite both players entering the game with an average of 10 or more points.

“We were just connected,” Poole said. “We stuck together the whole time, regardless of what happened.”

Poole said she enjoys playing the “three” zone because she knows she’ll have Ustby on her back, no matter what.

“(Ustby) is always going to be ten toes behind you,” Poole said. “That shows on the court. I trust her and she trusts me. If I know if I'm going to fight around, she's going to be in my help to get a charge.”

Poole led the team in rebounds, recording eight in just 15 minutes of playing time. Rebounding is something Poole said the team has been emphasizing recently. The Tar Heels want to keep the standard they set last season, she said, where they finished second in the conference with 42.7 per game.

Both Poole and junior guard Deja Kelly noted that the team has been out-rebounded in several of their matchups, including their last four losses.

“(Rebounding) hasn't been as important as it should be to us,” Kelly said. “So I think that's something we really locked into in practice and especially this game, knowing that it was going to take all five on the defensive end.”

Although the Tar Heels were out-rebounded on Sunday, they were up against the No. 11 rebounding team in the nation and were able to hold the Fighting Irish below their average, which helped the team turn the corner after a tough stretch. 

Playing good defense was North Carolina's main goal, Poole said.

“(The Fighting Irish) were a top-four team," she said. "They were number four in the country. So knowing that we were able to stay with a top-five team just fueled our emotion and our energy and our hard work."

@evemaddock

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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