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Tar Heels survive dramatic final seconds in first-round NCAA Tournament win over St. John's

UNC junior guard Deja Kelly (25) dribbling the ball during UNC’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against the St. John’s Red Storm in the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, March 18, 2023.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The No. 6 seed North Carolina women’s basketball team (22-10, 11-7 ACC) defeated No. 11 seed St. John's (23-9, 13-7 Big East), 61-59, in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at the Schottenstein Center on Saturday evening.

What happened?

UNC drew first blood when junior guard Deja Kelly hit a mid-range jumper in transition. Redshirt senior guard Eva Hodgson then found junior forward Anya Poole for a fastbreak layup, and junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams scored a putback off a Kelly corner three airball.

The Tar Heels extended their lead to 8-0 off a fading one-legged floater from Kelly. St. John's guard Mimi Reid hit a three for the Red Storm’s first score of the game, but junior forward Ustby answered with a lefty layup and Kelly hit another one-legged mid-range jumper.

St. John's began to find its rhythm as star guard Jayla Everett hit two threes and a jumper. Hodgson hit a three, followed by Ustby and Kelly adding a pair of baskets, but guard Unique Drake closed out the first quarter with a jumper. UNC led 19-15 heading into the second frame.

The Red Storm amped up the physicality in the second quarter and trimmed the deficit to 19-21, but Todd-Williams and Ustby hit back-to-back threes to extend the lead again. A five minute scoring drought for St. John's ended as halftime approached when Reid hit a free throw. UNC led 29-20 at the break.

Hodgson hit a second-chance 3-pointer and Ustby drew a charge on the other end to open up the third quarter. Guard Kadaja Bailey hit an and-one shot over Hodgson to cut the lead to eight points, but Todd-Williams answered with a three. Everett continued her hot shooting with another three and Ustby bullied her way inside for a basket to put UNC up 37-30 midway through the third quarter.

Todd-Williams scored two more baskets, including a fadeaway jumper. The Red Storm kept getting to the charity stripe, hitting five free throws, but Hodgson hit another three to keep them at bay. Ustby picked up her fourth foul before the third quarter was over, forcing head coach Courtney Banghart to make more substitutions.

St. John’s opened up the final quarter with a 5-0 scoring spurt to tie the game at 46-46, causing Banghart to call timeout. Ustby risked fouling out on a fastbreak bucket and St. John’s took its first lead of the game when forward Danielle Patterson hit a corner three.

Patterson drew a charge on Ustby a minute later, who exited the game. Patterson scored another layup, expanding the UNC deficit to 51-48. With redshirt first-year forward Teonni Key in for Ustby, the Tar Heels looked disarrayed.

Patterson scored again, but Kelly answered with a lefty layup to pull it within three points and first-year guard Paulina Paris scored a fastbreak and-one layup to tie it up. Key posted up in isolation and drew a foul, hitting both clutch free throws. Reid tied the game with an inside basket with under a minute to play.

Todd-Williams scored a putback layup to put UNC up by two with under 30 seconds left and St. John’s called a timeout. With 6.5 seconds to play, Reid snuck inside for a game-tying layup. Out of UNC’s timeout, Kelly drove inside and scored an and-one layup with 2.3 seconds to play and nailed the free throw to put the Tar Heels ahead for good.

The Red Storm used its final timeout and Patterson drew a shooting foul from behind the arc, but missed the first two free throws with 1.5 seconds to play. From there, the Tar Heels never looked back.

Who stood out?

Kelly led UNC in scoring with 18 points and the go-ahead game winning drive to the basket. Todd-Williams scored 14 points and Hodgson continued her hot shooting from the ACC Tournament, going 3-6 from downtown.

Everett and Patterson scored 17 and 10 points, respectively.

When was it decided?

The game was decided in the final possessions, when Kelly hit the layup and Patterson couldn’t convert all three free throw attempts.

Why does it matter?

North Carolina advances to the next round and will take on the No. 3 seed Ohio State Buckeyes on their home turf. If the Tar Heels make it out of Columbus, they will advance to the Sweet 16 in Seattle, looking to build on last year’s Sweet 16 run.

Additionally, Ustby, who turned 21 today, became the 40th Tar Heel in program history to score 1,000 points.

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When do they play next?

The Tar Heels will face No. 3 seed Ohio State on Monday.


@dthsports |

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.