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UNC women's basketball transfers shine in season opener

UNC junior center Maria Gakdeng (5) fights for the rebound after a free throw during the basketball game against Gardner Webb at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. UNC beat Gardner-Webb 102-49.

A few hours before the North Carolina women’s basketball team’s 102-49 season-opening routing of Gardner-Webb, head coach Courtney Banghart still didn’t know who she would pick to start. 

But, she said her indecision was a good thing.  

With so many options, spanning from the five first-years, three experienced transfers and seven returners, she said her hesitation was a testament to the versatile talent the Tar Heels offer this year. 

“As a coach, it’s great to have depth,” Banghart said. “It gives you accountability. It gives you more options. It gives you some buffer when you have some injuries.”

Banghart ultimately chose senior forward Alyssa Ustby, first-year guard Reniya Kelly, graduate guard Lexi Donarski, senior guard Deja Kelly and junior center Maria Gakdeng to take the floor first. She chose a total of 11 UNC players during Wednesday night’s victory over Gardner-Webb. The No. 16 Tar Heels put their newfound depth on display, as six players scored in double figures, 45 points came from the bench and 50 points were recorded by non-returners.  

Banghart said her roster allows the North Carolina team to play the game in different ways. If the team isn’t knocking down shots around the perimeter, they can pass it inside. If the lane gets a little too crowded, the Tar Heels have talented options who can make an outside shot.

“My game doesn’t succeed if I don’t have great players around me,” Ustby said. “They make it so easy. I’m looking at [my] six assists — I have six teammates who knock down great shots.”

Three new scoring options came in the form of the transfers: Gakdeng, Donarski and sophomore guard Indya Nivar. 

UNC graduate guard Lexi Donarski (20) prepares to shoot the ball in the Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 game against Gardner-Webb. UNC won with a score of 102-49.

Gakdeng went 100 percent from the field in the first half, putting up eight points. As one of the six Tar Heels who hit double figures, the Boston College transfer finished with 13 points. 

After North Carolina struggled at first from 3-point range, shooting 4-23 from behind the arc in the first half, Donarski helped changed the tone. Her four 3-pointers were  part of an explosive 40-point third quarter that helped seal UNC's victory. 

Then there’s Nivar, whose half-court buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter set the tone for the remainder of the game. With 2.2 seconds remaining on the clock, sophomore guard Paulina Paris inbounded the ball to Nivar, who dribbled once before launching a half-court heave.

The Stanford transfer admitted she had never made a half-court shot in her basketball career before. Ustby said the moment she saw Nivar collect the ball, she knew it was going in. 

With that shot swishing through the net, Nivar was on her way to a team-leading 17-point performance – a career-high for the sophomore.

UNC sophomore guard Indya Nivar (24) drives to the basket during the basketball game against Gardner Webb at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. UNC beat Gardner-Webb 102-49.

“When I came here, I wanted to grow,” Nivar said. “I wanted to reach my goals, and the coaches [and] my teammates have supported me in that process. We’re going in the right direction so far.”

Before Sunday’s game against Davidson, Banghart will probably face a similar conundrum of who will stand in the starting lineup. But if Wednesday is any indication, she has a slew of solid options.

“I would say a cool thing about this group is that everybody’s hungry to compete,” Ustby said. “And I think that’s a piece that we needed a little bit more of last year.”


@dthsports |

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