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'I live for moments like these': Deja Kelly and UNC women's basketball ice Duke with free throws

UNC junior guard Deja Kelly (25) fights for the ball during the women’s basketball game against Duke on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. UNC defeated Duke 45-41.

DURHAM, N.C. — The Tar Heels weren’t about to let the Blue Devils cut down any nets in front of them.

On Sunday, Duke was looking for more than just a top-25 win over its rivals on Senior Day. A victory against UNC would allow the team to capture its first ACC regular-season championship — and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that comes with it — since 2013. 

“If they beat us, they’re going to cut down nets while we’re here,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. 

In a chippy game in which both teams combined for 46 turnovers, UNC used the physical intensity of the Blue Devils to its advantage. By getting into the bonus in the second half, the Tar Heels earned and knocked down nine free throws. 

Drawing fouls proved crucial in the 13-5 run that UNC used to close out the game, 45-41. 

“You would like to not play defense where every foul is points for them,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said. “And we got into that in the third and fourth quarters.”

In the game’s final three minutes, junior guards Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams combined for 10 points. Six of those points were free throws, as the guards made an intentional effort to attack the hips of the Blue Devil defenders and draw contact.

With 13 seconds remaining, assessing the scene in front of her, Kelly controlled the ball at the point and initiated a one-on-one with Duke guard Shayeann Day-Wilson. Kelly, who is second in the ACC in free throw attempts, said that when she saw how tightly Day-Wilson was guarding her, she knew the sophomore would reach at some point. After pulling the ball back for a second, Kelly drove into Day-Wilson and, with a slight head jerk, cued the whistle blow.

"Just going to the free throw line, I was able to take a deep breath,” Kelly said. “I knew that I’m great in moments like that. I live for moments like these."

Kelly’s free throws extended UNC’s lead to four points at 45-41 to ice the game. After the win, she and redshirt senior guard Eva Hodgson took a bow in front of the Duke student section.

“‘Ha ha’, that was the feeling I was feeling,” Kelly said. “I think we all know why.”

While North Carolina can laugh now, and enjoy its fair share of locker room water bottle fights, the team understands there’s a quick turnaround between now and the ACC Tournament — in which the Tar Heels could face off against Duke again in the quarterfinals on Friday.

While UNC earned 15 steals and forced Duke to commit a season-high 25 turnovers on Sunday, the Tar Heels turned the ball over 21 times themselves. North Carolina shot below 35 percent from the field and scraped by to earn a win with 45 points — the lowest score in a win in program history.

The Tar Heels realize scraping by with this type of play isn’t sustainable.

Sitting between Kelly and Todd-Williams during postgame interviews, Banghart placed her hands on the shoulders of the star players. 

“I love you all, but I need you to take better care of the basketball,” she told them.

Banghart also offered a few jokes about how the game may have not been the most fun for viewers. Still, it’s clear that she and the rest of her team weren’t seriously fazed.

“We had good shots, who cares?” Todd-Williams said. “We won the game at the end of the day.”

After the buzzer sounded, Todd-Williams ran over to the corner of the floor, blew two kisses to the crowd and stuck her tongue out. Following a barrage of hugs — the wrap your arms around someone’s shoulder and sway back-and-forth kind — the Tar Heels exited Coach K court. 

No net-cutting ceremony in sight.


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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.