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'Literally a rock fight': Tar Heels survive physical battle with No. 13 Cardinals

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UNC redshirt sophomore guard/forward Teonni Key (13) guards the basket during the women’s basketball game against Louisville in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. No. 23 UNC beat No. 13 Louisville 79-68.

Courtney Banghart knew No. 23 UNC's game against No. 13 Louisville was going to be a heavyweight bout. Or, in her words, "like literally a rock fight."

“We asked ourselves on Tuesday and Wednesday to contain our emotions and lock into how we wanted to play and so that we could play, we could have our emotions on Thursday," Banghart said. "I mean on… what day is today?”

Not Thursday. It was Sunday, as senior guard Deja Kelly chimed in to remind her. That’s how locked in Banghart and the Tar Heels were.

Who cared what day it was? UNC’s head coach certainly didn’t. She was just really pleased at how her team played Sunday in a big 79-68 win over the Cardinals at Carmichael Arena. North Carolina stifled Louisville on defense, holding it to seven points below its season average and just 27 percent shooting from three. Senior forward Alyssa Ustby had a career-high seven of UNC’s season-high 11 blocked shots, and the Tar Heels won the rebounding margin by 14. After being tied at halftime, UNC pulled away in the third quarter to take control of the game.

“[We] didn’t wanna get emotional too early cause we knew how much this game would take,” Banghart said. "The nuance of it is probably lost on a lot of folks, and that’s fine. These guys were totally locked into the scout, how we wanted to play defensively, how we wanted to attack offensively.”

The Tar Heels were certainly locked in late in the third quarter, out-rebounding Louisville 10-4 and forcing five turnovers. Kelly attacked, attacked and then attacked some more, getting to the line and making nine free throws.

And then, with just over two minutes to play in the quarter, Ustby knocked the ball away from Louisville's Nyla Harris and sophomore guard Indya Nivar pounced on it. She took it the length of the floor and glided to the rim for the bucket. North Carolina finished the third on a 15-2 run and held Louisville without a field goal for more than six minutes. 

“I think we just started to really understand — you see it, and you start to say, ‘Oh, right, this is what they’re going to,’” Banghart said. “Great job on the scout, so they just knew what was coming next."

Kelly said the Tar Heels matched Louisville’s physicality and played through the contact — even when the whistles weren’t going their way.

“We knew it was going to be physical,” Kelly said. “We knew it was going to be fast-paced, it was going to be intense. Us staying pretty poised on both ends of the floor, I think that’s what kept us going.”

The Tar Heels took it to the Cardinals on both ends of the floor, proving they were the tougher team in the third quarter.

And no matter what day it is, there’s no shortage of fire in North Carolina’s locker room.

“We’re a super competitive group,” graduate guard Lexi Donarski said. “Like very competitive. And so we just have a mindset that we’re expecting to win these games, we’re expecting to play well, we’re expecting to play together, and our competitiveness just kind of takes over.”

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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