As time stood still, all eyes were on Alyssa Ustby.
Facing a one-point deficit with 2.6 seconds left to play in Thursday's senior night clash against No. 9 Virginia Tech, the UNC women’s basketball forward stepped up to the charity stripe.
She took a deep breath, bent her knees slightly and banked in the foul shot. Tie game.
Ustby’s next attempt clanked off the rim and into the hands of Virginia Tech's star center, Elizabeth Kitley, who immediately called timeout. On the ensuing inbounds play, Kitley hit a 15-foot turnaround buzzer beater, and the Hokies walked away with a 61-59 victory.
In hindsight, Ustby making the second free throw wouldn’t have changed the outcome; A UNC miscommunication on defense left Kitley, the reigning ACC Player of the Year, virtually unopposed. Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said he’s seen Kitley make that shot "a thousand times."
But that doesn’t make it hurt any less for Ustby.
“She’s really heartbroken,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I always say that you’ve gotta recruit kids you can lose with. Because if you can lose with them, you won’t lose very often. That’s a kid I can lose with.”
Throughout Carmichael Arena’s bittersweet senior night festivites, Ustby had tears streaming down her face — both in celebration for her teammates, but also in dejection and self-blame for what had transpired on the court.
Ustby accounted for all four of North Carolina’s fourth quarter turnovers, exemplifying rust from an injury that had kept her sidelined for three weeks.
“She had too many turnovers tonight, she’s a little out of rhythm there,” Banghart said. “She can’t stand the turnovers and she just wants to be better for me and for us.”
Junior guard Deja Kelly took over UNC’s offense in the fourth quarter, hitting four of the team's last five field goals, but Ustby’s uncharacteristic mistakes played a part in allowing the Hokies to maintain pressure.
With just over seven minutes left to play, Ustby caught the ball on the right wing and spotted junior forward Anya Poole cutting. She immediately zipped a pass to Poole, but it was picked off by forward D’asia Gregg. Seven seconds later, guard Kayana Traylor drained a transition three.
The trend persisted. After every miscue, the Hokies marched back down the floor for quick scores from Traylor and Kitley, who combined for 41 points.
“That’s what it comes down to whenever we play Virginia Tech, honestly,” Kelly said. “Possession games.”
Ustby wasn’t the only starter who returned from injury. Redshirt senior guard Eva Hodgson hadn’t played in four weeks and finished without a field goal. Banghart wasn’t surprised by Hodgson’s shooting woes.
There was a silver lining in Hodgson’s struggles from the field as first-year guards Kayla McPherson and Paulina Paris played impactful minutes with the sharpshooter sidelined. While Paris connected on two timely triples, McPherson nailed a clutch trey and forced a turnover from star guard Georgia Amoore with under a minute to play.
Given the experience of UNC’s starters, coupled with how its young backup guards have gelled, Banghart doesn’t think it’ll take long for the Tar Heels to regain momentum. On Sunday, the Tar Heels will play its final regular season game at Durham against No. 11 Duke, who is currently tied for first place in the ACC.
Despite the tight timetable, junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams is just happy to have Ustby and Hodgson back.
“I feel like we’re whole again,” Todd-Williams said. “They bring incredible pieces to this group.”
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