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Scoring renaissance lifts UNC women's basketball to upset over No. 6 N.C. State


UNC graduate guard Lexi Donarski (20) dribbles during the women’s basketball game against N.C. State on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at Carmichael Arena. UNC upset No. 6 N.C. State 80-70. 

When UNC women’s basketball began preparing for its game against No. 6 N.C. State, the Tar Heels wanted to become a group that refused to relent.

Starting on Tuesday, North Carolina dedicated itself to persistent film study, intense practices and mental reconditioning to become a team that suffocated its opponents.

“We didn’t give them much breath,” head coach Courtney Banghart said

With this shift in mentality, the Tar Heels upset the Wolfpack, 80-70, on Thursday night in Carmichael Arena. Even with only four available guards and a single-digit performance from star guard Deja Kelly — her first since Jan. 7 — the team leaned into offensive shifts to achieve its first top-10 upset and highest-ranked win of the season. Following a recent four-game losing skid, North Carolina worked to develop its perimeter shooting and find its forwards deep in the post to push five players to double-figure performances.

UNC matched a season high with 11 threes and shot over 51 percent from behind the arc while cutting its turnovers down to seven.

But the Tar Heels were slow in the opening minutes of the first quarter, finding themselves down seven points in the opening five minutes. As the Wolfpack lit up from the perimeter, the North Carolina offense appeared unchanged. 

Coming out of the media timeout, senior forward Alexandra Zelaya — who averages 2.1 points per game — ignited the first spark, sinking a 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down. On the next possession, Zelaya hit another one to make it a two-point game. 

“My girls have my back," she said. "I feel like I could fly at at hat moment and so I let the ball fly and it went in."

According to Banghart, the playbook completely opened up after that. The court began to resemble those fiery practices that had taken place over the last 48 hours — the practices where Banghart prepared for an N.C. State team that would completely “shade” Kelly’s scoring and refuse to follow a center like Zelaya to the perimeter.

So instead, Kelly was a floor general, dishing out eight assists — tied for a season-best. With their captain more absent on the scoring end, her teammates took the reigns.

After transferring to the ACC from Iowa State, Donarski said she had to get used to shooting from behind the arc without as much space. Although N.C. State’s head coach Wes Moore admitted he prepared for Donarski all week, the graduate guard’s dedication to becoming quicker off the catch proved too much to handle: Donarski had 23 points, including 5-of-9 shooting from deep.

Even if you eliminate Donarski as a threat, though, Banghart still has an offensive pulse. She planned for that. 

With six minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack made it an eight-point game by shutting down Donarski late. In preparation for moments like this, Banghart worked to add actions to find scorers elsewhere. 

“If you’re gonna obsess on Lexi," Banghart said, "someone else is gonna be open."

To push the Tar Heels’ lead as high as 12, junior center Maria Gakdeng scored six points in just over a minute to seal the win.

Banghart planned for all of this. Her players just had to execute. According to Zelaya, delivering during the game became an order after days of dedicating themselves to Banghart’s plan. 

“What you guys saw tonight, we have been doing for two days," Zelaya said, "So we were really happy to be able to carry that over."

After a recent losing stretch and despite a lineup plagued by injuries, the Tar Heels dedicated themselves to finding a way to win behind a team that refused to relent — a team that chose not to let its opponents breathe. 

And if Thursday night's offensive display was any indication, they left N.C. State gasping for air.


@dthsports |

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