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Hodgson and Ustby shake off rust to take down Clemson in second round of ACC Tournament


Junior guard and forward Alyssa Utsby (1) drives the ball to the basket in the game against Clemson University in the second round of ACC Championship in Greensboro, N.C. UNC won 68-58.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — February wasn’t kind to Alyssa Ustby and Eva Hodgson.

For weeks, the injured starters of the North Carolina women’s basketball team could only sit back and watch their teammates limp through ACC play. Narrow losses at Louisville, Syracuse and N.C. State left fans wondering what could’ve been if UNC was fully healthy.

Ustby and Hodgson returned on Senior Night last Thursday, but visibly struggled in a buzzer-beater loss to Virginia Tech. UNC ended its regular season by defeating Duke three days later, but again Ustby and Hodgson appeared rusty, as Ustby had eight turnovers and Hodgson was held scoreless.

“Those two games were really hard on me,” Ustby said. “I had to give myself grace because I was out for a collective amount of weeks, and that kind of threw my rhythm off.”

February wasn’t Ustby and Hodgson’s month. Their first game in March, however, was a different story.

In Thursday’s 68-58 win over Clemson in the second round of the ACC Tournament, Ustby and Hodgson combined for 28 points and eight assists. The starters were clicking at the right time, carrying UNC to its first conference tournament win in the Courtney Banghart era.

Clemson’s 2-3 zone dared the Tar Heels to take 3-pointers early on. After not making a shot in her previous two games, Hodgson went 3-4 from beyond the arc in the first quarter alone.

“We knew getting Clemson was going to be a gritty battle,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We knew after playing so many games in a row against man-to-man we were going to see zone, which would require different adjustments.”

Hodgson’s hot hand was contagious, as junior guards Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams soon began to connect from downtown — each hitting a pair of 3-pointers before halftime. Clemson’s pack-the-paint zone was neutralized, giving Ustby more space to operate inside.

Hodgson, speaking to assistant coach Itoro Coleman before the game, was prepared to assume her role as a “zone-buster.”

“I mean, naturally I'm a three-point shooter, and so in the past few games it's been a little off,” she said. “But my teammates really found me, and I was hitting, and it felt great.”

It’s important to highlight Hodgson and Ustby’s efficiency — Hodgson went 4-7 from long range and Ustby finished 7-12 from the field. But it’s equally key to note how long they played, which allowed overworked players like Kelly to get more rest.

Hodgson and Ustby played a team-high 35 and 34 minutes, respectively. In contrast, Kelly — who averaged nearly 38 minutes in conference play — played only 28. She hasn’t played under 30 minutes since mid-December.

“Well, (playing less than 30 minutes) also was due to my four fouls, which is insane, so I kind of didn't have a choice,” Kelly joked after the game. “But it definitely felt good, especially since we know that it's a long weekend.”

Any sign of a previous injury from Ustby was nowhere to be found, as the junior forward constantly matched the Tigers’ physicality. Midway through the third quarter, as she was diving for a loose ball, her left knee slid across the hardwood and drew blood.

A minute later, an official spotted the wound, momentarily pausing the game. But according to Ustby, she never even noticed the scrape.

“That's the beauty of my job,” Banghart said. “All of them want to play every minute. This is not the time where we worry about ‘are you tired, are you sore?’ We worry about the next one.”

Ustby and Hodgson’s reintegration in March is timely, where every game is win or go home. On Friday, North Carolina’s true capabilities will be tested against Duke in the rivals’ third meeting this season.

“It's the right time to be healthy,” Banghart said. “I'd like to be healthy all the time, but it just gives me more options at a really important time in our season.”


@dthsports |

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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.