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Senior trio of Kelly, Ustby and Poole propel UNC women's hoops past Virginia

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UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) shoots the ball during the Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024 game against the University of Virginia in Carmichael Arena. UNC won with a score of 81-68.

Experience goes a long way. 

It’s why head coach Courtney Banghart trusted the upperclassmen in her huddle to respond after Virginia made it a one-point game going into the final quarter. Their leadership and wisdom means she only has to make minor adjustments. From there, they work out the rest. 

No. 23 North Carolina’s seniors carried the Tar Heels in the fourth quarter battle to a 81-68 win over Virginia on Sunday. The impact of guard Deja Kelly, forward Alyssa Ustby and forward Anya Poole in the final 10 minutes squashed UVA’s comeback push, combining for 51 points by the end of the night.

UNC had a 14-point lead — its largest of the game — in the second quarter, but the Cavaliers managed to chip away at that deficit throughout the third. While shots started to fall for Virginia, North Carolina became stagnant and struggled to convert on its opportunities.

In that third quarter alone, the Tar Heels shot only 43 percent from the free throw line, struggled to keep the Cavaliers out of the lane and were out-rebounded 12-10. Virginia ended the quarter with a 7-1 run in the last two and a half minutes.

Still, Banghart wasn’t too worried about her team.

“They show great toughness,” she said. “So they’re just not rattled by things like that, right?”

She was right. From the start of the final quarter, her seniors got to work.

Through a cluster of defenders in the lane, Kelly found junior center Maria Gakdeng for an open layup. On the next play, Kelly stripped the ball away from UVA’s Camryn Taylor, dribbled the length of the court and weaved around her defender for a transition basket, drawing a foul.  

Banghart said that while some people have voiced questions about Kelly’s shooting — which has dipped to 36 percent from the field this season — that's not a concern she shares. 

“Us inside the locker room, we just don't worry about Deja Kelly,” Banghart said. “She’s what we need.”

Then, there’s Ustby, who earned her 30th career double-double and made multiple jump shots down the stretch that helped the Tar Heels pull away. The senior forward said she knew the fourth quarter was going to be tough, and she wanted to focus on staying disciplined on closeouts, avoiding fouling and maintaining defensive intensity.

Banghart labeled this performance as simply “Alyssa just being Alyssa,” even though it required Ustby to bounce back from a meager six-point performance in the Tar Heels' loss against Florida State on Thursday.

“It’s really just about getting back to the basics,” Ustby said. “Going back to my bread and butter, staying disciplined on boxing out, going to get the rebound, looking for my teammates and then also just being aggressive on offense — the game will work out with the work that we put in.” 

Finally, in that key final quarter, Banghart turned to Poole, who the head coach said she can always rely on to make an immediate impact. And, she did — the Raleigh native led the team in rebounds in the final ten minutes, helping UNC to out-rebound UVA 44-39, and finished around the rim to add a crucial five points to the scoreboard. 

After the FSU game, Poole said that she had to learn to adjust to a different role this year. As a contributor off the bench, she had to stop worrying about starting and her minutes on the floor. She instead reminded herself that her presence and voice is always going to be needed.  

“When my time comes, I’m just like, ‘OK, I’m ready.’” she said.

Was Banghart surprised to see three of her seniors making an impact on such an important stretch of the game? Absolutely not. Just as she has become a better coach throughout her tenure, these players — the members of the very first class under her leadership of the program — have too.

“I told them after the game, it’s hard to win any game,” Banghart said. “So far, that’s four [ACC wins]. We’ll start with that and see where it takes us.” 

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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