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No. 16 UNC women's basketball staves off potential upset to Davidson in 74-70 win

UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) drives the ball to the rim during the women’s basketball game against Davidson in Carmicheal Arena on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023.

The No. 16 North Carolina women’s basketball team (2-0) staved off a potential upset by Davidson (2-1) with a 74-70 win on Sunday night. Despite Davidson recording 10 3-pointers on the night, UNC was able to get to the line and ice the game in the final minute.

“Usually if a team makes 10 threes, you don't win that game,” Banghart said.

The Tar Heels rolled with the same starting lineup as seen in their 102-49 rout of Gardner-Webb: senior guard Deja Kelly, first-year guard Reniya Kelly, junior forward Maria Gakdeng, senior forward Alyssa Ustby and graduate guard Lexi Donarski.

But it was a small-ball lineup head coach Courtney Banghart tried out later which would result in UNC’s best stretch of the play in the first quarter. Gakdeng came out for sophomore guard Indya Nivar, leaving only one Tar Heel, Ustby, who taller than six feet.

The Tar Heels double-teamed Davidson whenever it entered the post to prevent mismatches, while its ball pressure forced five Davidson turnovers in the first period. The only field goal Davidson scored in the four minutes was a turnaround hook by Wildcat Millie Prior posted up against Deja Kelly. 

“In terms of what I like about that lineup, I can learn to like it,” Banghart said. “I liked it a lot last year, but I'd like to practice it if we're going to play it.”

Trotting out this lineup was not her plan. Banghart said the team found out the day of the game that senior forward Anya Poole would not play due to a lower-body injury.

That forced Nivar, a guard, to play at the bottom of UNC’s 3-2 matchup zone, which Banghart said she had never done before.

Despite her inexperience, Nivar was key to the lineup’s early success and continued her disruption in the second quarter. Forced to play bigger than her 5-foot-10 frame, she led her team in stripping the Wildcats of the ball.

At the end of the second quarter, UNC deployed its zone again. It was largely effective, and UNC held Davidson to 26 points on 30 percent shooting in the first half.

Despite building a 34-26 halftime lead, North Carolina didn't have the offensive momentum necessary to pull away.

After a Deja fast-break layup to put UNC up by 11 — its biggest lead of the game to that point — the Wildcats forced two straight turnovers to bring the lead down to five.

North Carolina bounced back momentarily, and entered the fourth quarter up 58-49. In the final period, the Wildcats began to chip away. The Tar Heels' poor perimeter defense allowed the Wildcats open threes en route to a 8-0 run. Davidson’s Charlise Dunn hit a 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter to give Davidson its first lead of the game at 64-62. 

“It's just hard when they have so many 3-point threats,” Donarski said. “They get us in the ball screens and stuff, and we had a couple of communication issues that [are] all on us. It's stuff that we talked about before the game, and we just didn't execute like we had said that we were going to.”

A few minutes after Dunn's three, a Donarski catch-and-shoot from behind the arc put UNC up 70-66. Donarski’s three treys on Sunday were the most of any Tar Heel.

“I'm just reacting to whatever my teammates create,” Donarski said. “The three that I hit at the end was all because of Deja. She drew all the attention of three bodies and then basically had the choice of two other people that were open to pass it to.”

But a few plays later, while defending the post, Gakdeng allowed Prior to slip under her. An overhead pass found Prior, who finished through a Gakdeng foul and converted the resulting free throw to make it 70-69.

After a pair of missed UNC free throws, Gakdeng and Donarski each recorded foul shots in the final 15 seconds to put the game away, 74-70.

Despite shooting a career 55.5 percent from the free throw line,the moment didn’t faze Gakdeng. She said she practices on the same hoop where she made her key free throws.

“I just kind of imagined [being] by myself making those free throws, so it just came naturally to me,” Gakdeng said.

North Carolina plays next on Wednesday at 11 a.m., when the team hosts Hampton at Carmichael Arena.

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