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Zone defense surrenders three crucial 3-pointers down the stretch in UNC's loss to Virginia Tech

UNC redshirt sophomore guard/forward Teonni Key (13) hustles for a rebound during the game against Virginia Tech in Carmicheal Arena on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. UNC loses 70-61.

Trailing by two with under 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter, UNC head coach Courtney Banghart made a change.

That change? A 3-2 zone.

After forcing Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore to her left — into UNC's graduate guard Lexi Donarski — sophomore guard Indya Nivar came up with a steal, going coast-to-coast for a fastbreak layup.

But in No. 24 North Carolina’s 70-61 loss to No. 17 Virginia Tech on Sunday, not all of UNC's defensive sequences were as effective. Early in the game, the Tar Heels struggled to keep up with the fast-paced Hokie offense. UNC had problems working around high ball screens and afforded Virginia Tech too much space on the offensive end. 

Luckily for North Carolina, both teams struggled to score in the first half — shooting a combined 30 percent — allowing the Tar Heels to keep the game close.

Coming out of the halftime break, North Carolina picked up its defensive intensity, forcing five turnovers in the third quarter alone.

“Once they got into their single-side coverage, we came out of the half and really defended that well,” Banghart said. “And so they go to their next action, tried to play more in the highways and our zone takes that away.”

Part of UNC’s defensive game plan was shutting down All-American center Elizabeth Kitley. Banghart, who made sure to note the Tar Heels have seen Kitley a lot, incorporated double teams and push-outs to force Kitley into difficult situations. Kitley, who typically shoots around 54.5 percent from the field, made just a third of her shots on Sunday.

“We wanted to make her uncomfortable,” Banghart said. “We kind of gave her hell.”

Throughout the second half, UNC was able to shut down the Hokies' offense, holding them to just 13 points in the third quarter and 15 in the fourth. Donarski played a key role, holding Amoore to just 6-21 shooting from the field.

“They got two players [Kitley and Amoore] that control the majority of their offense and I thought we did a good job helping off when we could,” Donarski said, “And just really trying to guard ball screens the best we could.”

But just as quickly as the zone started working, it collapsed in overtime, as Virginia Tech figured out how to exploit soft spots and missed assignments. 

The Tar Heels gave up three 3-pointers during the overtime period, all due to overcommitting. Senior forward Alyssa Ustby crept too far inside, leaving Virginia Tech’s Matilda Ekh alone in the corner. Then senior guard Deja Kelly got caught in a screen, leaving Amoore open at the top of the key. And finally, Ustby lost Ekh again and got caught in a Kitley screen. 

“They’ll mix their defenses up,” Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said. “We were prepared for it. We just anticipated it coming a little bit sooner and so it did throw us off there a little bit, but they stayed with it. We regrouped and then we were able to get big shots.”

Despite the 3-2 zone's issues in overtime, Banghart said she wished she could run the zone all the time. However, she said injuries to the roster combined with the zone's fatiguing effect on players have restricted her ability to run the scheme more.

While this game extends UNC's losing streak to three, Banghart’s squad showed the effectiveness the zone can have in creating turnovers and suffocating opponents — if run properly. But, sadly for Banghart, the zone likely won’t become a common occurrence.  

“There’s a lot of things I have to synthesize in the moment,” Banghart said. “And our hope is that over the course of my tenure I make the right choices enough of the time.”


@dthsports |

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