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.
“All my teammates told me to breathe and just relax,” Key said. “That’s what I did. Just hit free throws.”
And finally, with six seconds remaining and the game tied at 58-58, Key set a screen for Kelly, who hit the go-ahead and-one layup to put the game away.
The first-year’s final stats weren’t outstanding by any means — tallying two points, zero field goals and one steal in 11 minutes of action. But every play the Cary, N.C. native made — on or off the box score — came at pivotal moments down the stretch.
“That's a player's game out there late in the game,” Banghart said. “I can make a few calls here and there, but these guys got to go make plays.”
For a team that believed it was underseeded in the bracket, barely escaping from an 11-seed is certainly a wake-up call; at times, Banghart even thought her team’s errant play was proving the selection committee right. Ustby also admitted that all five of her fouls were careless, as it was the first time this year she fouled out.
On Monday, North Carolina will look to make its second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance by upsetting No. 3 seed Ohio State on its home turf. The undersized Tar Heels notoriously struggled against Big 10 teams early on in the season, but as shown by reserve players like Key hitting their stride at the right time, anything can happen in March.
“I know that my team needed me and we had been preparing for moments like this the whole season,” Key said. “Whatever it took, I was ready to put it on the line for the team.”
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