GREENSBORO, N.C. — Alyssa Ustby couldn’t help but think of the possibilities.
Before Friday’s 44-40 loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, the junior small forward had never lost to the Blue Devils in her time on the North Carolina women’s basketball team. In Ustby’s first year at UNC, Duke canceled its season due to COVID-19.
So naturally, Ustby had considered the game’s rivalry implications beforehand.
“It definitely crossed my mind at one point,” she admitted. “I was like, ‘I wanna sweep Duke in my whole career, that would be such a cool thing.’ But putting that aside, it’s basketball. There’s going to be losses. Not only do you need to play well, you need to have a little bit of luck. It’s unfortunate that the basketball gods didn’t give us this one.”
Whether or not luck played a part in Duke’s defense — which ranks first in the ACC and held UNC to four fourth quarter points – is arguable.
Regardless, the tightly contested match came down to a few missed shots, so Ustby noted that she’s not upset. After all, the most important basketball of the season has yet to be played.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Tar Heels had already shifted their focus to the road ahead. After redshirt senior guard Eva Hodgson fumbled an inbounds pass on a desperation 4-point play attempt with three seconds left, she was immediately met by junior forward Anya Poole, and the two players clasped hands with looks of determination.
“We just keep moving,” junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams said. “We have the NCAA Tournament to look forward to, so no wasting time.”
Being eliminated from the ACC Tournament is only the latest dip in the emotional roller coaster North Carolina has ridden since Ustby’s return from injury. First, it was a buzzer-beater loss to Virginia Tech on senior night last Thursday. Then, the Tar Heels spoiled Duke’s chances at winning the ACC regular season title in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Next, North Carolina secured its first ACC Tournament win in the coach Courtney Banghart era against Clemson on Thursday. And most recently, it was another nail biter against Duke that just didn’t go UNC’s way.
“These are second weekend teams that we've played over the last two weeks, and we're finally healthy,” Banghart said. “A few shots go a different way, the outcome is different. You never want to be the one that loses, but somehow it's not really fair that someone has got to lose these games.”
With Selection Sunday just over a week away, the Tar Heels are currently projected as a four-seed. Last season, Banghart received feedback that UNC’s easier non-conference schedule weakened its case for hosting the first two rounds of the Big Dance in Carmichael Arena.
So she made it a point to schedule more challenging teams in North Carolina’s non-conference slate — UNC’s RPI strength of schedule ranks 12th nationally. Given this metric, Banghart believes the Tar Heels have earned a top-16 overall seed.
“I'm just glad that these guys have done enough work that it's not over,” Banghart said. “I'm pretty biased, but I'm also pretty analytical. When you look at the numbers, quality wins, top-25 wins and you look at bad losses, we don't have any of those. Whatever your metric is, it seems pretty promising.”
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