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'Live for moments like these': Zelaya's career night helps UNC pull off upset over Wolfpack

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UNC senior forward Alexandra Zelaya (0) celebrates after UNC women's basketball game against N.C. State in Carmichael Arena on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. UNC upset No. 6 N.C. State 80-70. 

Tuesday before the N.C. State game at Carmichael Arena, Courtney Banghart had three words for Alexandra Zelaya: “We need you.” 

The head coach wasn’t sure what that need would look like — whether she wanted the senior forward low in the post or on the perimeter as a floor spacer. With so many injuries in the guard room, the Tar Heels have been forced to play in different roles and experiment with lineups.

But Zelaya didn't care if she saw the floor for zero or 20 minutes.

“It’s my job to stay ready,” she said. “And I take that job very seriously every day.” 

The senior forward hadn't scored in double digits since her team's 2022 bout with South Carolina. Still, she stayed ready.

On Thursday, that preparation paid off. Zelaya notched a career-high 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from downtown in a crucial 80-70 win over No. 6 N.C. State. She helped UNC climb out of an early seven-point deficit in the first quarter, making plays and knocking down two momentum-shifting threes in her first few minutes off the bench.

At the 5:25 mark in the first quarter, the senior forward checked into the game. With North Carolina down 13-6, she found sophomore guard Indya Nivar for a wide-open three. Then, after senior guard Deja Kelly drew two defenders in the lane, she kicked it out to Zelaya’s awaiting hands to beat the shot clock.

Swish. 

Seconds later, the sequence repeated. Graduate guard Lexi Donarski passed to Zelaya for another uncontested three. Suddenly, a seven-point hole transformed into a one-possession game with two minutes remaining in the first quarter. 

“I can’t even count the amount of times — Lexi’s saying it, Anya [Poole]’s saying it: ‘Z you better shoot,’” Zelaya said. “It’s almost like they’re threatening me. It’s like, ‘You better shoot or else.’”

The senior forward, who averaged just under eight minutes prior to Thursday, played for a season-high 22 minutes. While she was on the floor, the Tar Heels outscored the Wolfpack by 16 points.

Banghart said the ACC doesn't have many centers that can roam the perimeter. That, coupled with sharpshooter Donarski receiving extra defensive attention, allowed Zelaya to capitalize on her open looks — often to the surprise of the Wolfpack. 

“Zelaya, I guess that’s what she does,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said with a shrug.

Even with her ultimate performance exceeding expectations, Zelaya said her preparation for Thursday’s game was not any different that usual. She always works on her shot and takes time for extra conditioning.

Admittedly, though, her form of conditioning is a little unique. She logs 17 laps in 20 minutes at the Bowman Gray Memorial Pool next to Carmichael — a combination of freestyle and backstroke. Since she does not always see consistent playing time, Zelaya said she focuses on consistency in her practice and conditioning regimen.

Still, she said watching her shots fall on Thursday made her finally relish in the fruits of her labor — the payoff for her time in the pool and the gym. Banghart sees it too. She said she can put Zelaya in against a top-10 team and not have to worry about her energy level because of the senior’s attention to conditioning.

“It’s a kid you can always count on,” Banghart said. “I think the things that she does — stays ready — it’s a little in the shadows. Not for us. Our team knows we can count on her.”

But Zelaya’s favorite moment wasn’t a made shot or a defensive play; it wasn’t even during the game at all. When she walked into the locker room after the game, Banghart told her no water fight celebration.

“We have to act like we’ve been here before,” the head coach said.

Psych. The coaches ran in, throwing water and thoroughly soaking all of the unsuspecting players.  

“We couldn’t hide our expression of joy because we live for moments like these,” Zelaya said. “They come and they go. Being a senior, I have to cherish them extra hard.”

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Safe to say, thanks to her preparation, she was ready for this moment.

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com