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'Find a way to win': Despite one bench point, UNC women's basketball starters fend off late Miami push

UNC junior guard Deja Kelly (25) attempts a shot during the women’s basketball game against Miami at Carmichael Arena on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. UNC beat Miami 66-61.

The UNC women’s basketball team has a bag full of tricks. Simply put, it knows how to win in a variety of ways.

Rely on its defense – ranked fourth in the ACC – to hold its last seven opponents to under 70 points? Sure. Learn how to out-rebound teams to pull off upsets in top-ranked matchups? Check.

And most recently? 

On Thursday night, with sophomore guard Indya Nivar contributing the singular bench point, head coach Courtney Banghart turned to her starting five. In the No. 20 Tar Heels’ 66-61 victory over the Hurricanes, each starter reached double figures in scoring.

Spearheaded by senior guard Deja Kelly's 18 points, North Carolina held off a late Miami surge to seal its seventh ACC victory — its best conference record since the 2012-13 season.

“This was a game where we really needed the first five and the bench didn’t give us as much as usual,” Banghart said. “It’s just a true team. I mean, there’s a lot of guys that care."

That care presented itself as soon as the first play of the game. 

Twenty seconds in, Deja Kelly dribbled around the arc to the right side. The Hurricanes’ initial zone defense left first-year Reniya Kelly completely open on the wing. Kelly-to-Kelly connection. Swish.

Then, with two minutes left in the first quarter, graduate guard Lexi Donarski — the team’s go-to three-point shooter — left the comfort of the perimeter and drove to the basket for an easy layup. 

“Defense [does] win games," Reniya Kelly said, "But I think we’re also prepared to make the extra pass, make the post feed, make the one-dribble pull-up."

In the second quarter, forward Alyssa Ustby found junior center Maria Gakdeng deep in the post multiple times, something Gakdeng said the duo has worked on a lot.

“I think what was most important about tonight is that we were able to share the ball," Gakdeng said. "[We were] moving the ball, reversing, making sure we get the rights shots."

But by the beginning of the fourth quarter and with the Tar Heels up 13, Miami refused to — in Banghart's words — “roll over and die."

Without the steady substitutions and frequent foul calls that provide short breaks, the starting five began to wear down. Donarski — who saw all 40 minutes of play — missed a wide-open three. Gakdeng turned the ball over with only a little over a minute left to go. 

Having 10 players see the floor and with no one seeing over 33 minutes of play, the Hurricanes used the opportunity to inch closer to a wavering North Carolina team. With 57 seconds left in the game, Miami’s Shayeann Day-Wilson drove to the paint, throwing a tear-drop shot up in the process. The ball hit the top of the glass, found the net and the whistle blew. One-possession game.

Following a turnover that put the Hurricanes just one point behind North Carolina, Banghart looked to the Tar Heels' starting lineup once again. This time, she put her full trust in veteran Deja Kelly. 

In an attempt to regain possession with 15 seconds left to go, Miami fouled Deja Kelly. She stepped to the charity stripe and made the two shots easily. After a Hurricane turnover and another foul attempt, she made another two free throws 12 seconds later. 

The captain was able to finish the game and cement a new chapter of the Tar Heels’ storied ways of winning. A chapter where the starting five alone, most of them tired from almost 40 continuous minutes of play, can push UNC to a victory.

Another trick in the team’s bag.

“It’s a sign of a good team when you can find a way to win,” Banghart said


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