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Tar Heels can't crack Buckeyes as women's basketball season comes to an end in Columbus

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UNC junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams (3) shoots the ball during the game against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, March 20, 2023.

 COLUMBUS, Ohio — If sophomore forward Destiny Adams were to identify a mantra for this season, it would be “hard to beat.”

“I think we faced adversity,” she said. “Our motto was to be 'hard to beat,' and I think we brought that the majority of the season.”

In UNC’s season-ending 71-69 loss to No. 3 seed Ohio State, the Tar Heels pushed the Buckeyes to the brink while battling through adverse circumstances. Without starters Deja Kelly or Eva Hodgson, who missed the latter part of the game due to injuries, North Carolina began to claw back from a double-figure deficit in the fourth quarter. The final period represented a tenacity that served as a common thread throughout the season.

The first test came after Hodgson, attempting to draw a charge on senior forward Eboni Walker, hit the floor with eight minutes to play. When Hodgson stood up and continued to grab at her head, she was benched. Following the loss, she was diagnosed with a concussion.

With seven minutes remaining, Kelly awkwardly curled around a screen and quickly collapsed. She was soon carried off of the court and hobbled to the locker room with a banged-up knee. 

North Carolina was down by 12 points. Two starters were gone, and the season was on the line.

After Kelly left the floor, the Tar Heels huddled together. The message was clear — another soldier had to step up.

“I would definitely say we just fought with the younger guys in there,” junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams said. “They definitely locked in. I thought that was a big moment for us.”

Three bench players — Kayla McPherson, Paulina Paris and Destiny Adams — were forced to play in critical minutes down the stretch. 

The Tar Heels then went on a 13-4 run that helped the team regain its momentum. A layup by Paris with two minutes to play gave UNC its first lead of the game.

Despite absorbing blow after blow, including having Adams foul out in the game's final five minutes, McPherson said that the Tar Heels found comfort in the fact that they’d been in similar late-game situations before.

After all, the team wasn’t too far removed from a five-game stretch in February when Ustby and Hodgson sat out due to injuries and other players were forced to step up. McPherson started three of those games and Adams and Paris both started two contests of their own, including a full 40-minute endeavor at Louisville for Paris. 

“We’ve been in a similar situation before with losing people,” redshirt first-year forward Teonni Key said. “Coach has always told us we are enough, regardless of what happens.”

With two and a half minutes remaining, Kelly — just minutes removed from being carried off the court — checked back into the game.

“That’s Deja Kelly for you,” junior forward Anya Poole said. “She’s not gonna just sit out because she wants to. If she can walk and put pressure on it, she’s going to go back in the game, regardless of if she can run, if she has to limp, if she has to try and fly some type of way. She was gonna come back in, and I knew that from the jump.”

Kelly almost immediately added two free throws to the score, and with nine seconds remaining, hit a midrange jumper to tie the game at 69-69. It appeared, for a second, as if UNC would pull off the unthinkable.

It wasn’t enough. 

A game-winning shot from Ohio State's Jacy Sheldon in the game's final two seconds spoiled North Carolina’s comeback bid and ignited the Buckeyes’ celebration.

Despite a bitter ending, Banghart led off her final postgame press conference by stating how proud she was of her team.

They did all the things she thought would get them to a Sweet 16, but in the end, she said the Tar Heels “just weren’t quite good enough.”

“I asked them to be what they have been all year, which is a group of fighters,” Banghart said. “I asked them to be locked down defensively. I asked them to make shots, make plays, be stars. We asked them to be hard to beat.”

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@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


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.