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The Daily Tar Heel

No. 20 UNC women's basketball falls to Virginia, 81-66, in late game collapse

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UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Utsby (1) dribbles the ball during a women's basketball game against Virginia on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024 in Charlottesville, VA. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications/Keith Lucas/Sideline Media Productions.

The No. 20 North Carolina Women’s Basketball team (15-6, 6-2 ACC) fell to the Virginia Cavaliers (10-10, 2-7 ACC), 81-66, in a collapsing upset on Sunday in Charlottesville. 

After controlling the tip, the opening sequence was frantic on both ends of the court for UNC. The Tar Heels turned the ball over three times in the opening minutes, uncharacteristically sloppy as a statistically top-12 team nationally at just under 13 turnovers per game. 

Multiple Tar Heels made their presence felt early. First-year guard Reniya Kelly was blistering from beyond the arc, canning three 3-pointers in under five minutes, coming off of her first multiple-three-point performance in Carolina blue against Miami. Graduate guard Lexi Donarski finished tough and-1 buckets and contributed an impactful 5 points early. Senior guard Alyssa Ustby, riding her double-double performance against Miami, was aggressive in stuffing the stat sheet, snagging defensive boards and hustling to prolong North Carolina possessions throughout the quarter. 

Virginia’s Kymora Johnson, who scored 35 against Florida State one week ago, was the lone offensive kryptonite for the Cavaliers, registering 7 of an early 9 points. With the starting five struggling to find their offensive stroke, a 6-8 clip from the stripe kept UVA within striking distance of a 59 percent shooting UNC squad, which sank 4-6 from three-point range.    

The second quarter was a completely different story for the previously potent North Carolina offense. A slow start for both teams characterized the opening minute, as neither side recorded a bucket while junior center Maria Gakdeng committed a quick two fouls. The matchup continued to showcase a first-year showdown between Reniya Kelly and Kymora Johnson, with the underclassmen going toe-to-toe and combining for over 25 points.

However, Virginia’s Sam Brunelle, whom hit six three-pointers against the Tar Heels a season ago, appeared visibly fired up as she found her long-range stroke. The Cavaliers would go on to put together a 14-1 run, catching North Carolina in a 2:16 field goal drought. Getting it done offensively without leading scorer Camryn Taylor, Virginia exited the court with a 37-34 advantage at the half.

Coming out of the tunnel, Kymora Johnson continued her dominant outing, swishing a deep heave as the shock clock expired on the opening possession over a strong 2-3 zone defensive stance from UNC. Reniya Kelly quickly responded with her career-best 13th point, but Virginia’s Paris Clark drew a pair of fouls to extend her perfect game from the stripe after Virginia’s triple team swarmed and stripped Gakdeng. 

Johnson showed no signs of slowing down after netting her 20th point, joined by a hot teammate in London Clarkson who contributed eight third-quarter points. However field goals were now coming at a premium, as both sides suffered 3-minute field goal droughts. 

Reniya Kelly, with a strong take on the blow-by to the rim, amassed her 15th point while Ustby and senior guard Deja Kelly notched impressive reverse layups to trim the deficit to a mere three. 

Fourth quarter victory aspirations were off to a promising start as Deja Kelly found double figures on a pair of free-throws, despite a tough shooting affair, after drawing the fourth foul on Johnson and closing the window to one. However, Brunelle continued to split the iron, banking a miraculous hoist off the glass and quickly following it up with another catch-and-shoot for four total threes on the afternoon. A deflating turn of events, the Cavaliers enjoyed the bonus for the last seven minutes after Nivar fouled out and Ustby tallied a quick two personals. 

In the final 3:30, trailing by eight, North Carolina could not cash in any baskets and came up empty on three straight possessions. After consecutive lays in the lane, Virginia ballooned its advantage up to 14 and began to run clock as the John Paul Jones Center could sense the upset brewing. After conceding a 58 percent three-point UVA performance in the largest blown lead (13) under the Coach Courtney Banghart tenure, North Carolina could not hold off the surging Cavaliers in an 81-66 defeat. 

“I thought the game was really choppy,” said Banghart “It was hard to get in a rhythm, it was pretty inconsistently called which made it difficult as well, so all those things together, it was a difficult night.” 

North Carolina will look to avenge the conference loss as the Tar Heels travel to Raleigh for a meeting with N.C. State

@moiramartin010

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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