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No. 18 UNC women's basketball squeaks by Vermont in 54-51 win

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UNC red-shirt first year guard Kayla McPherson (14) brings the ball down the court during the women’s basketball game in the third round of the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. on Friday, March 3, 2023. UNC fell to Duke 40-44.

Coming back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the No. 18 North Carolina women’s basketball team (5-0) defeated Vermont (3-2), 54-51, in a hard test for its first of three tournament games at the Gulf Coast Showcase on Friday afternoon.

Withstanding a poor shooting display through most of the game, the Tar Heels found their stride in the fourth quarter to end the game on a 10-2 run and avoid the upset against the Catamounts.

Under head coach Courtney Banghart, UNC now holds an undefeated record of 26-0 during the month of November. The Tar Heels’ trek down to Estero, Fla. for the showcase, was their first game outside of Carmichael Arena this season. 

Earning her first start of the season, sophomore guard Indya Nivar opened the game with a pair of emphatic blocks. The rejections set the tone early for a North Carolina defense that has held its last two opponents to under 40 points.

A slow-paced first quarter saw little scoring – especially from a Tar Heel side that struggled to shoot early. Going 4-16 from the field, UNC trailed at the end of the first 13-8.

The Tar Heels didn’t have much of an answer for Vermont guard Emma Utterback, who led all scorers in the first quarter with seven points. 

Shooting woes continued through the halftime buzzer for North Carolina, as the team shot less than 25 percent from the floor. This included an abysmal 0-9 from three and 1-7 from the charity stripe.

Ending the first half, the Tar Heels fell behind the Catamounts 28-17 after a scoring drought that lasted the final four minutes of the second quarter.

“At halftime it was like, alright enough is enough,” Banghart said. “If we are not going to shoot well then we have to defend, and we were able to do that.”

Nursing an ankle injury, graduate guard Lexi Donarski did not make an appearance for UNC until after the halftime break. With her first shot of the game, however, Donarski buried the Tar Heels’ first made three of the afternoon. 

“We needed her, we needed her fighting spirit,” Banghart said.

Despite the added boost of having Donarski on the floor, Vermont stayed in front with a healthy lead. The combo play of Utterback and center Nikola Priede combined for a trio of layups in the third quarter. 

Within the final minute of the third, UNC senior forward Alyssa Ustby took advantage of a Black Friday deal. Slithering her way into the paint, the senior guard completed a buy-two-get-one-free 3-point play to cut the lead to single digits.

“The biggest thing for me was just trying to bring energy to my team, and make that contagious throughout the squad,” Ustby said.

Trailing the Catamounts 39-30 at the start of the fourth quarter, North Carolina still had no answers for Utterback. The graduate student dished out a pair of assists, along with a 3-pointer to increase the Catamount lead to double digits with six minutes remaining. 

Slowly chipping away at the Vermont lead throughout most of the fourth quarter, UNC was able to cut the Catamount’s lead down to four points with a baseline floater by redshirt sophomore Kayla McPherson.

“You could just see noticeably a shift,” senior guard Deja Kelly said. “Just in our energy, the way we were talking, just the defensive end really. That was the biggest way we came back.”

Two major stops by the Tar Heel defense led to a pair of late-game and-1s from Ustby and McPherson that propelled UNC into the lead for the first time since midway through the first quarter. 

Outlasting Vermont down the stretch with crucial stops and a handful of clutch free throws in the final three minutes, UNC escaped the Catamounts with late-game heroics from McPherson, Ustby and senior guard Deja Kelly. 

North Carolina will continue in the Gulf Coast Showcase playing in the semifinals tomorrow at 5 p.m. against No. 16 Kansas State. 

@cadeshoemaker23

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com