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UNC women's basketball escapes Atlanta with 73-68 win over Georgia Tech

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UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) runs down the court during the Jan. 14, 2023 game against the University of Virginia in Carmichael Arena. The Tar Heels defeated the Cavaliers 81-68.

With 39 seconds left on the clock, Georgia Tech gave UNC a taste of its own medicine.

Flanked by two aggressive Yellow Jacket defenders, senior guard Deja Kelly lost control of the ball. Ten seconds later, Georgia Tech guard's Rusne Augustinaite converted a 4-point play.

After leading by as many as 14 points with five minutes to play, the UNC women's basketball team found itself up by just three. Any previous sense of comfort turned into peril. While the Tar Heels eventually won in Atlanta on Thursday, 73-68, head coach Courtney Banghart admits her team — a top-3 defensive squad in the ACC — was thrown off-kilter by one thing: the Yellow Jackets' defense.

“They defended us totally differently than we have been seeing for three weeks,” Banghart said. “They switched on screens [and] they hugged, hugged, hugged all over the perimeter.”

The Tar Heels maintained their fourth quarter lead thanks to redshirt sophomore forward Teonni Key, who returned to the court last month after recovering from injury. Although Key contributed a season-high 10 points off the bench, that was not enough for the Tar Heels to fend off a Yellow Jacket surge. 

Following the 4-point play, UNC was met with the same aggressiveness. Rather than sagging off — as teams have been doing, according to Banghart — Georgia Tech’s Inés Noguero forced graduate guard Lexi Donarski to the right side of the court. She lost the ball. She threw her hands to her side in frustration.

Yellow Jacket ball.

To beat Georgia Tech, one thing became apparent for the Tar Heels: They would have to become uncomfortable and stop relying on their defense.

Unlike the defense, North Carolina struggles at the charity stripe, with its 64.3 clip ranked second-worst in the ACC. And during a one-possession game with 23 seconds on the clock, Kelly took the line in what became a test for the Tar Heels. 

“In each individual game and strings of games, is where we learn about who we are,” senior forward Alyssa Ustby said

Kelly’s response? Swish. A couple of seconds later, another.

After hitting a quick three pointer to make the score 69-67, Georgia Tech fouled. Almost like a scene on repeat, Kelly returned to the line and made the shots again.

With under three seconds left, the Yellow Jackets fouled again in a last-ditch effort. For the final time, Kelly stood behind the stripe. Both shots rolled in easily.

“Her free throws were just clutch,” Banghart said. “The bigger the free throw, the better for her.”

Without the Yellow Jackets responding to North Carolina's defense in the same way that other teams have, the Tar Heels relied on something different. Something that has plagued them the whole season: free throws. Spearheaded by Kelly, UNC went 16-19 from the stripe.

After beating Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels' 5-1 start in ACC is their best since the 2013-14 season. To Ustby, this is just another manifestation of the work that the team puts in to reach new heights.

We’re intentional and we’re bringing that intensity every single game because we want it really bad." 

@_emmahmoon

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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