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The Daily Tar Heel

Despite late push by Miami, No. 20 UNC women's basketball takes down Hurricanes at home

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UNC first-year guard Reniya Kelly (10) dribbles during the women’s basketball game against Miami at Carmichael Arena on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. UNC leads 38-28 at half.

Balanced scoring and late defensive heroics allowed No. 20 North Carolina (15-5, 7-1 ACC) to defeat Miami (12-6, 2-5 ACC) 66-61 on Thursday night in Carmichael Arena. 

By the final buzzer, all five starters for the Tar Heels had reached double-digit scoring. Senior guard Deja Kelly headlined the statbook with 18 points, followed by junior center Maria Gakdeng with 13. 

“There’s been so many games where the bench was exactly what we needed, for one of our guys not playing as well in the first group,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “This was a game where we really needed the first five, and the bench didn’t give us as much as usual.”

An early barrage of 3-point shooting allowed UNC to take a 12-3 lead after just three minutes of play. A pair of triples from first-year guard Reniya Kelly got UNC started before graduate guard Lexi Donarski added another midway through the opening quarter. 

In the final possession of the first quarter, Deja Kelly drew contact as her fade-away jumper found the bottom of the net. The Tar Heels’ leading scorer added a free throw to complete the 3-point play and give UNC a 22-8 lead after ten minutes. 

North Carolina continued to attack the Hurricane’s defense that boasted the lowest opponent points per game in the ACC. The Tar Heels opened the second quarter as quickly as the first, riding a 7-2 lead into an early Miami timeout.

The combo scoring of Reniya Kelly and Deja Kelly lifted UNC into a comfortable 17-point lead. Yet, a trio of Miami 3-pointers near the end of the half kept the Hurricanes within arm’s length by the end of the second period. 

At the break, UNC led 38-28. Reniya Kelly and Deja Kelly carried the offensive load with 10 and 11 points apiece. 

The game’s sporadic pace spilled over into the second half where the two teams traded bucket for bucket in the early going. Yet by the under-five timeout, another Tar Heel run emerged to bolster their lead back up to 17.

Three baskets in the paint for Gakdeng and another 3-pointer for Donarski chalked four Tar Heel players into double-digit scoring. 

“They want to push me out, and they know I’m most effective on the block,” Gakdeng said about her mentality to score. “So I’m making sure I do my work early and finishing through contact instead of fading away.”

A handful of Miami possessions late into the shot clock, as well as defensive blocks from senior forward Alyssa Ustby and senior forward Anya Poole, kept UNC afloat despite a nearly five-minute scoring drought to end the quarter.

However, a second flurry of Miami 3-pointers cut the Tar Heel lead to six points, as the game fell under four minutes left to play. 

With under two minutes left, a physical and-1 by Ustby was quickly answered by a Hurricane 3-point play on the opposite end. Even later, a turnover by Deja Kelly led to a Miami basket to cut the lead to one. 

Yet, a pair of clutch free throws from Kelly at the line sought redemption for her previous mistake and extended UNC’s lead to three. Stout defense in the final possession by Indya Nivar drew a charge against a driving Miami ball-handler, which allowed the Tar Heels to later ice the game from the charity stripe. 

“You need big stops to win games late,” Banghart said. “You don’t run through this league, you just don’t. You have to kind of find your way, and this got us to number seven.” 

North Carolina will travel to face the Virginia Cavaliers in its next matchup, this Sunday at noon.

@cadeshoemaker23

@dthsports l sports@dailytarheel.com

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