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'That's what she does': Kelly comes up clutch again for UNC women's basketball in NCAA Tournament first round


UNC junior guard Deja Kelly smiles after UNC’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against the St. John’s Red Storm in the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, March 18, 2023. The Tar Heels won 61-59.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Theresa Nunn wasn’t nervous when her daughter Deja Kelly got the ball with less than seven seconds remaining.

“That’s what she does,” Nunn said with a laugh. “I was kind of expecting a play like that.”

So was St. John’s. It was obvious that with the score tied, the ball would go to Kelly in the clutch.

Still, the junior guard was able to step up again for the Tar Heels. Kelly’s and-one bucket in the game’s final seconds allowed No. 6 seed UNC to edge No. 11 seed St. John’s, 61-59, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Kelly led the Tar Heels with 18 points on Saturday — six of those coming in the game's final five minutes.

On UNC's final possession, it took two cuts from Kayla McPherson and Eva Hodgson and then a screen from Teonni Key to get Kelly open for the in-bounds pass from Kennedy Todd-Williams. 

Much like her mother, Kelly wasn’t nervous. She loves those moments.

Kelly admitted that, as she set up at the top of the key with 6.5 seconds left on the clock, her thought process was simple — she wanted to go left and wanted to get to the rim. The junior said she would have taken the pull-up but it wasn’t falling, as evidenced by her five missed second-half jumpers.

So, she instead chose to weave through four defenders. The final St. John's player in her way, graduate guard Mimi Reid, slid inside the restricted arc and was called for the blocking foul as the ball went through the hoop.

“That’s exactly as we wanted it,” Banghart said. “We have a play call, but I can't tell you what that is. Yeah, we felt like it was a great execution. (Todd-Williams) made the pass, we trust her there. We had a time-out, she knew that. We wanted Deja going left and we wanted Teonni (Key) setting the screen so she could trail for the rebound. We would have really loved for them to foul us, and they did, so that was even better.”

After sinking the layup, Kelly promptly got up and began to stalk the perimeter of the court. Meanwhile, her teammates went absolutely ballistic. 

Todd-Williams pumped her fist and began jumping around. The entire Tar Heel bench hopped up and down while Hodgson and Key made a beeline to Kelly, getting in her face and yelling to fire her up.

“When it went in, at first I thought they called a charge and I was going to be really upset,” Kelly said. “But it went in and we got the foul and I made the free throw, so there was a lot of emotions in that one play.”

After two missed free throws from Patterson that could have tied the game, it was only fitting that Kelly was the one holding the ball when the final buzzer sounded.

The junior point guard was soon swarmed for post-game broadcast interviews. After she finished, she found her mother — who had just finished embracing Banghart moments earlier — in the stands. They both held up hearts to each other, part of a tradition that Nunn said helps the two connect from far away.

UNC junior guard Deja Kelly (25) signaling a heart to the stands after UNC’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against the St. John’s Red Storm in the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, March 18, 2023. The Tar Heels won 61-59.

“When she was itty-bitty, and she used to go to preschool, she was always nervous when I dropped her off,” Nunn said. “I’d see her at the door and I’d (blow a kiss) and she’d blow one back.”

Now, Kelly is hardly nervous. The first-team All-ACC selection leads her team in scoring with 16 points per game and has a team-high nine games this season with 20 or more points. The junior has played six 40-minute games this season. In UNC's final game of the regular season, her free throws iced the win on the road against Duke. 

Kelly is used to stepping up for her team. And in March, when the game is on the line, she's willing to do whatever it takes.

"With Coach putting the ball in my hands, (I'm) just trying to make a play," Kelly said "If they doubled, I was ready to make a pass. Just anything like that, just trying to make a play down the stretch and will my team to a win.”

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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.