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Strong defensive performance anchors UNC women's basketball in 62-32 win over Hampton

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UNC sophomore guard Paulina Paris (2) attempts a contested layup in a women's basketball game against Hampton University at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. UNC won 62-32.

While Deja Kelly was being scouted in high school, UNC women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart said the point guard was written off by many recruiters who believed she could not defend at the college level. 

Now, according to  Banghart, the senior guard has improved drastically on the defensive end.

Kelly, alongside sophomore guard Paulina Paris, helped hold Hampton to 11 points or less in every quarter during Wednesday’s 62-32 victory over the Pirates. In a game where the guard-heavy Tar Heels shot below 35 percent, the defense was UNC's stronghold.

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UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) shoots a three during a women's basketball game against Hampton University at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. UNC won 62-32.

Banghart said this year's UNC squad — which picked up eight new faces in the offseason — was built to perform defensively. 

While forming the team, Banghart ignored the opinions of other recruiters and based her approach on players' mentalities. Although Kelly and Paris both lack the frames to be natural defenders, Banghart said she scouted the guards based on their unparalleled competitiveness and desire to get better.

“[Deja is] one of the better defenders in our league and she wasn’t when she got here,” Banghart said. “But she’s competitive, right? Paulina too. She’s not built to be great defensively. She’s wired to be great defensively. All she cares about is winning.”

This summer, while most UNC students returned to their hometowns, Paris stayed in Chapel Hill. With her first season behind her, Paris knew she had to make a “big jump.”

The weight room became her home. Confessing that she came in skinny, Paris worked to add muscle and gained a couple of pounds from her efforts. With increased size on her side, she then focused on her pull-up jump shot and her defense — two areas she admitted needed the most improvement.

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UNC sophomore guard Paulina Paris (2) drills a free throw in a women's basketball game against Hampton University at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. UNC won 62-32.

“Going into games, I’m really just here to help my team win,” Paris said. “I did what I had to do [in] the offseason.”

The work is obviously paying off, with UNC's game on Wednesday serving as a testament to that effort.

Against Hampton, the Tar Heels forced turnovers by defending ruthlessly. The Pirates had 29 turnovers with 11 of them coming in the first quarter. In what became a chippy contest, the Tar Heels pressed up close on their defensive assignments and forced tough shots — pushing Hampton to shoot outside of the paint.

With a 3-point percentage of just 20 and an inability to find openings inside, Hampton was completely gridlocked by UNC defenders, like Kelly and Paris, who were once underestimated.

Still, the Tar Heels know there is room for improvement, with Banghart noting that week-to-week defensive adjustments are needed. It's an expectation that Banghart is vocal about, noting "there's no secrets about that in our locker room." Kelly added that she agrees there's "definitely more work to do," on the defensive end — especially in regards to communication — following a narrow 74-70 victory over unranked Davidson on Sunday.

“The expectation is how we build our team,” Banghart said. “I recruited the most competitive kids I can and they will get better at all areas of the game because of it."

@_emmahmoon

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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