COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Teonni Key subbed in for Alyssa Ustby in the fourth quarter, Ustby was sure her younger teammate could get the job done.
Key, a redshirt first-year forward, has seen limited minutes this year and has hardly ever played in crucial moments. But when Ustby fouled out with 6:15 left to play in UNC’s NCAA Tournament opener against St. John’s, someone had to step up. In the No. 6 seeded Tar Heels’ 61-59 win over No. 11 St. John's on Saturday, that player was Key.
“I was really confident in the preparation that Teonni has done,” Ustby said. “I had a lot of confidence that she would do well, and she did amazing.”
Even before Ustby was sidelined, the Tar Heels had already been approaching their breaking point. St. John’s took its first lead of the night thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from forward Danielle Patterson, who also drew Ustby's final foul.
As the first team All-ACC selectee headed to the bench, Patterson mock-saluted goodbye and proceeded to score inside to put the Red Storm up 51-48.
“We were rattled, clearly,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “When Alyssa fouls out, she creates extra possessions for us. You can trust that. It just added to our rattled-ness. It wasn't a game where we felt settled the whole time, so it just kind of added to that.”
With under four minutes to play, St. John’s had a chance to extend its three-point lead and take full control of the game. A first-round upset was rapidly becoming an imminent reality for North Carolina, but Key forced a timely turnover. Two plays later, first-year guard Paulina Paris tied the game on a three-point play.
Then, with just over a minute to play and the game still tied, star veteran guard Deja Kelly saw an opening for a post-entry pass to Key. Without hesitation, Kelly passed up a shot, trusting the rookie to make a play in her first career NCAA Tournament game.
Key backed down inside and drew a foul. She’s not the best free throw shooter with a 59 percent average, but she stepped up and calmly knocked down both clutch foul shots.