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No. 18 UNC women's basketball falls to Florida Gulf Coast, 65-64, in Gulf Coast Showcase

UNC junior forward/center Maria Gakdeng (5) prepares to make a pass in the Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 game against Gardner-Webb. UNC won 102-49.

Coming off of its first loss of the season to No. 16 Kansas State, the No. 18 UNC women’s basketball team (5-2) faced Florida Gulf Coast (5-2) for the first time in program history. The Tar Heels lost against the Eagles, 65-64, in the third-place game at the Gulf Coast Showcase, dropping back-to-back non-conference games for the first time since December 2018.

Entering Sunday, both UNC and Florida Gulf Coast had averaged 69.3 points per game so far this season. After dropping the game to Kansas State, 63-56, yesterday, North Carolina’s offensive struggles continued into the beginning of Sunday’s game.

FGCU opened the game with a 4-0 lead, but North Carolina rebounded quickly to tie the game up early in the first quarter. UNC junior center Maria Gakdeng was a bright spot for the Tar Heels early, with eight points in the first quarter after going scoreless last game. She wasn’t met with much offensive help, as her team struggled to find the net and trailed by five after the first quarter. 

North Carolina senior small forward Alyssa Ustby struggled on both sides of the ball, recording three personal fouls in the first quarter and a half after fouling out in Saturday’s loss. UNC redshirt sophomore guard Kayla McPherson also had three fouls in the first half, limiting the Tar Heels’ options early with two starters having to miss minutes due to early foul trouble.

With the Heels trying to gain any sort of momentum, North Carolina senior captain Deja Kelly stepped up and scored multiple field goals in the 2nd, finishing with 14 points in the first half, tying Gakdeng for the team lead. The Heels battled back to earn a 33-31 lead, their first lead at half all tournament and their first lead since very early on in the first quarter. 

In the third period, UNC started strong by forcing a turnover to start the quarter and Gakdeng and Kelly continued to lead the Heels and give them their largest lead of the night at seven, two minutes into the second half. Ustby netted her first field goal of the night midway through the third but the Eagles continued to pound the three point line, hitting ten threes through 30 minutes and taking a two point lead into the fourth quarter. 

Kelly scored a pair of free throws to get the lead back for the Heels but FGCU scored yet another three to tie the game at 58 with six minutes to go. With three players on both teams having four or more fouls, the bench became more and more thin for both head coaches.

Gakdeng netted yet another field goal to give the Heels a 64-63 lead. However, with the Tar Heels failing to score for over three minutes, the Eagles scored a layup with less than 10 seconds remaining to take a 65-64 lead which proved to be the last dagger to upset the Heels.

“We need more guys playing better,” Banghart said. “That’s the first thing is getting individually — what is it that they are holding back from to be playing better? Ball has to move better East-West."

Gakdeng had a career performance for UNC, netting 22 points to tie her career best against FGCU with a perfect shooting percentage — 8-for-8 from the floor and on field goals and 6-for-6 on free throws with nine rebounds. Kelly had her 22nd 20-plus point performance for the Tar Heels with 24 on the night to lead the team once again. However, the performance of these two wasn’t enough as the rest of the team struggled to put points on the board all night.

The Tar Heels are hoping to rebound on Thursday night when they face their biggest test of the season so far against No. 1 South Carolina at Carmichael Arena

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