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.