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Veteran guard play sparks UNC women's basketball to 70-57 victory over Georgia Tech

UNC junior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) brings the ball up court during the game on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Carmichael Arena. UNC won 70-57.

Alyssa Ustby couldn’t wait to run.

Midway through the third quarter in Sunday afternoon's matchup against Georgia Tech, the junior forward blocked Yellow Jacket guard Tonie Morgan’s layup. After snatching the ball away, Ustby took off towards center court, scanning the floor for her teammates.

“Alyssa’s ability to rim run ignites our break,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “She either draws a crowd or she gets (the basket).”

To her right was forward Anya Poole, who hadn’t yet established a favorable post position. Flaring to the left corner up ahead was guard Kennedy Todd-Williams, who also wasn’t open. 

So Ustby turned around and dumped off a pass to guard Deja Kelly, who hesitated, faked and jabbed before draining the wide open three. The sequence sparked a 14-2 scoring run, which helped the Tar Heels earn a comfortable 70-57 win over the Yellow Jackets. 

The victory showcased a high-octane offensive display, particularly from the trio of Ustby, Kelly and Todd-Williams.

“As soon as we get a defensive stop, I’m just so excited to sprint down the court,” Ustby said. “That might sound weird, but I really am. Because I love to compete and I love to try to outrun my opponent down the floor. I just get a thrill from doing that.”

On the next possession, the roles were flipped, with Kelly securing the rebound and leading the break. Within seconds, she found Ustby backing down forward Kayla Blackshear. Ustby took one dribble and muscled her way in for a left-handed layup.

Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner called a timeout, but it didn’t seem to slow the Tar Heels’ momentum. 

On the opening possession, with her back to the baseline, Todd-Williams read the Yellow Jackets’ inbound play. The junior guard leapt up for the steal and took it all the way for a fastbreak layup, and once again, Ustby had already bolted down the court for any potential second-chance points.

“I’m really thrilled with the growth of our offense over the last two weeks or so,” Banghart said. “We’re having the maturation on that end that we want.”

Perhaps that maturation wasn’t more evident for any player on Sunday than Kelly, who finished with 18 points on 7-14 shooting, including going a season-best 4-6 from deep.

Unlike Kelly’s lone triples in recent wins against Notre Dame and Duke — which both clunked in on a favorable bounce — all four of the guard’s 3-pointers drew nothing but net.

“It felt pretty good,” Kelly said. “I just have to keep reminding myself that I’m a good shooter and telling myself that my percentages are not a reflection of the type of shooter I am. Just having that confidence to still keep shooting, regardless of misses, has definitely helped me through it these past few games.”

Banghart credited Kelly’s improvement in shooting percentage to the offense’s holistic development, adding that the Tar Heels are "starting to cut at the right times" and "screen at the right angles."

“As our offense has gotten better, (Kelly) will get more shots in rhythm, and that’s what you saw today,” Banghart said. “Some of the shots she’s taken over the last month have been really challenged. That’s partly her own doing and partly our team’s doing.”

Just three weeks ago, UNC had opened up ACC play with three consecutive losses, including one against an unranked Miami team. Banghart addressed the team’s shooting woes, indicating that they were looking forward to turning things around.

Now, the Tar Heels have won five straight games. They’ve knocked off Notre Dame and Duke, accounting for the two powerhouses’ only conference losses. The big three of Ustby, Kelly and Todd-Williams make UNC the ACC’s only team with three scorers in the conference's top 10.

And given how freely they played against the Yellow Jackets, the Tar Heels are showing no signs of slowing down.

“Offensively, it came down to understanding how to play together,” Ustby said. “Making sure we play to everybody’s strengths when we’re on the court has helped our offense flow.”


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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.