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'Just too anxious': Slow start dooms UNC women's basketball in road loss to Virginia Tech

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UNC graduate guard Lexi Donarski (20) goes in for a layup during the UNC women's basketball game against No. 8 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

BLACKSBURG, Va.  — Take out the first quarter of North Carolina’s 74-62 loss to No. 8 Virginia Tech, and UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said she believes the Tar Heels might have found a way to win Sunday’s game. 

After senior forward Alyssa Ustby secured the ball from the tip-off, she threw it ahead to senior guard and fellow co-captain Deja Kelly for a transition layup. But Kelly’s shot bounced off the backboard — no basket. 

The next possession, graduate guard Lexi Donarski traveled with six seconds to go on the shot clock. Two possessions later, Kelly dribbled the ball off her foot and it rolled out of bounds. Finally, junior center Maria Gakdeng took an extra step while trying to maneuver around Elizabeth Kitley in the post on UNC's next trip down the floor.

After just three minutes of play, the Tar Heels had already committed three costly turnovers. As the mistakes piled up for North Carolina, the shots fell for Virginia Tech, and UNC’s first-quarter woes ultimately created a hole too deep to claw out of. Scoring a season-low five points in the first 10 minutes of action, the Tar Heels fell into a 16-point deficit out the gate. 

“We were just too anxious,” Kelly said. “That’s how it felt on the court between us. I thought we didn’t value those possessions, which mattered because they came out punching and hit a couple of threes really early.”

Donarski said the shot selection was not what the team was hoping for. North Carolina did not create enough actions and move the ball to generate open space for better looks. As the Hokies exploded for 57 percent shooting from the field, the Tar Heels lagged behind, only knocking down two of their first 13 shots. 

Kelly said the early possessions were all over the place. Virginia Tech was seemingly focused on shutting down Donarski and sophomore guard Indya Nivar, denying passes that would have created better ball movement.

Besides the defensive pressure, Kelly said she did not do her part to help the team move the ball. She admitted it took her several minutes to settle into the game.

“We were beating ourselves early on,” she said.  

North Carolina needed a spark, and for a few minutes of brief relief, the Tar Heels got what they desperately needed. 

In the second quarter, Kelly exploded for 14 points. UNC tried to involve Kitley in as many ball screens as possible, allowing Kelly to find openings on the court for a midrange jumper or layup. When those spaces closed, she found her teammates.

“[We were] like, ‘the shots we’re getting are not the shots that we want,’” Donarski said. “‘We need to get better shots and work together as a team.’ I feel like we were able to make that switch, especially after the first quarter, and it just proves we have a team that wants to win and that will do what we need to win.”

As the seconds ticked away in the first half, Kelly pulled up from the logo, banking in a deep three to chip the deficit down to six. Now, the game appeared manageable — if only for a little while.

On her way to a 29-point game, Kelly said she did not feel any pressure to carry the offensive weight. When the shots don’t fall for her teammates, she said she encourages them to keep shooting. Simply put, she has to follow her own advice. 

However, once again, UNC's shots stopped falling at key opportunities in the second half. It didn’t matter that North Carolina forced more turnovers or scored more points in the paint than Virginia Tech. Kelly’s efforts alone weren’t enough. The first quarter left the Tar Heels constantly trying to claw back from behind, and they were unable to build significant, game-shifting momentum.

The deficit only grew, and soon it was too late. 

“Imagine if you could just take away the first quarter,” Banghart said. “I think we’d like where we’d be. But we can’t.”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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