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UNC women's basketball displays defensive grit in close loss to top-ranked South Carolina

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UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) defends during the Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023 game against the University of South Carolina in Carmichael Stadium. UNC lost with a score of 65-58.

Late in the first quarter, Alyssa Ustby drove to the basket and was pulled down by South Carolina's Ashlyn Watkins.

Ustby lost the ball, pushed Watkins off of her, and ran back on defense. Watkins got in the way of the senior forward, prompting a scuffle between Watkins and senior guard Deja Kelly, who came to Ustby’s defense.

For the Tar Heels, this showed that they could bring the physicality — that they could set the tone against the top-ranked Gamecocks. North Carolina came out with intensity, forcing South Carolina into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, helping the No. 24 Tar Heels jump out to an early lead. Despite an eventual 65-58 loss, the Tar Heels had displayed a weapon: its defense.

On the first three South Carolina possessions, UNC's defense forced three consecutive turnovers. On all three of those, junior center Maria Gakdeng’s post presence against the towering 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso led to South Carolina’s miscues. Her performance is part of the reason Ustby cited Gakdeng as a "big key piece for us" and someone the Tar Heels could rely on defensively.

In the first quarter alone, North Carolina forced six turnovers and were able to hold the Gamecocks to just 10 points.

However, Gakdeng wasn’t the only one to impose herself early in the game. Ustby — who, like Gakdeng, defended a taller opponent — displayed her abilities on the boards and earned key rebounds for the undersized Tar Heels, something that South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley praised.

“You can know so much about a player and still they’re able to do what they do best and bring out, and give their team an opportunity to get some extra possessions,” Staley said. “It’s hard. I mean, we got out of position sometimes. She actually just went and got the ball.”

Ustby’s 12 rebounds helped stifle the South Carolina offense to prevent second chance opportunities. Throughout the first half, North Carolina was able to force the Gamecocks to settle for shots instead of letting them create their own. 

Staley said that in the first half, the Tar Heels were able to dictate the pace and the style of play  — a sentiment shared by Kelly. 

“I thought we were really good defensively,” Kelly said. “We were active, we were making them go to their third, fourth, fifth option offensively.” 

Gakdeng, however, got into early foul trouble and was forced to sit for a large portion of the second quarter. Then, she picked up two quick fouls three minutes into the third quarter and headed to the bench with four fouls.

By then, South Carolina had begun to slowly chip into North Carolina’s lead. The Gamecocks took their first lead of the game with just under six minutes to play, and from there, they never looked back.

“Maria getting in foul trouble hurt us,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We were kind of tiptoeing around with some foul trouble there. Two of her fouls were on the offensive end are a problem. And so you know, that gave us a shortened rotation at the big spot.”

And when the Tar Heels were able to get within three near the end of the game, they were able to come up with forced turnovers to give themselves a shot.

Although the defense wasn’t enough to quell the Gamecocks on Thursday night, Banghart knows that it was just the first step in becoming the team she knows they can be.

“We’ve been in our share of close games, not only this year, but in my career, kind of expect that the better you get cause the margins are really small," Banghart said. "The difference between [North] Carolina and [South] Carolina clearly isn’t that big.”

@mdmaynard74

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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