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Junior trio of Ustby, Todd-Williams and Kelly close third chapter of UNC women's basketball journey

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Members of the UNC women's basketball team huddle during the game against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, March 20, 2023.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three juniors, 1.8 seconds and one hail mary.

Deja Kelly popped out on the wing, looking to draw multiple defenders. Alyssa Ustby cut inside, anticipating the ensuing lob.

As Kennedy Todd-Williams watched her inbound pass clank off the rim, the UNC guard put her hands on her knees, then on her head in disbelief. Kelly pointed to the clock as time expired, pleading her case to an official, while Ustby trudged back to the bench.

Just like that, No. 6 seed North Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, falling 71-69 to No. 3 seed Ohio State in the second round.

“It's the beauty of March, and it's the brutality of March,” head coach Courtney Banghart said.

In her final postgame press conference of the season, Banghart was joined by Ustby and Todd-Williams to her left. To her right sat Kelly, who stared at her shoes and didn’t look up until she was asked questions. The three All-ACC players combined for 54 points on Monday, including 21 of the team’s 23 in the fourth quarter.

 What’s left to say about this group that has not already been said?

“I would be nowhere without these three for all the obvious reasons and also all the not-so-obvious reasons,” Banghart said. “How they stuck by each other, they stick by me, they believe in our program and what they have meant to us.”

Three years ago, Banghart’s then-rookie recruits arrived in Chapel Hill as disjointed pieces of a developing puzzle — Ustby, the versatile Minnesotan forward, Todd-Williams, the homegrown talent and Kelly, the flashy five-star guard from San Antonio.

That year, the young trio played in the shadow of veteran center Janelle Bailey and future WNBA player Stephanie Watts and lost in the first round of the Big Dance. The following season, that group brought UNC to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015.

And now, their third chapter has come to an end.

“These guys have been with me since I got here,” Banghart said. “They were the first phone calls I made. They're proving me right, not just because of their talent, but because of their fortitude. They're competitive as hell.”

Facing a 12-point deficit with seven minutes to play, Kelly crashed into a Buckeye screen and had to be carried off the court — almost a surefire dagger to any comeback hopes. But Ustby and Todd-Williams responded just as quickly, scoring all of UNC’s points in its 13-4 run during Kelly’s absence.

“The one thing we say before every game is that we got each other's backs,” Ustby said. “So when Deja went out, we huddled together like, ‘Guys we got this, we're doing it for Deja and we're doing it for all of us to give us the best chance to win.’”

Although they ultimately fell short, the Tar Heels know their story isn’t over. But while thinking of the future is motivating to Banghart, appreciating how far her team has come is equally inspiring.

Three years ago, in her second season at the helm, the former Princeton coach looked to restore prominence to a waning program. Since then, she has built an inseparable group around her first recruiting class at UNC — a band of young women who endure it all together, be it laughing or crying, winning or losing.

From the exciting uncertainty of the season’s first practice in October to the brutal beauty of competing in March, that connectedness remains unwavering. It continues to grow. And as the Tar Heels grieve the conclusion of their season, they find solace in the fact that they don’t have to do it alone.

“Coming up short, obviously it hurts all of us the most,” Kelly said. “The conversations we've had, the hard work that we've put in together, I think that's why it means so much is because we've been through all of it literally together. And personally, I wouldn't want to go through it with anyone else.”

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.