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Ustby and Kelly combine for 35 points in Senior Day win over Duke

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UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Utsby (1) and UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) high-five during the women’s basketball game versus Duke in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, March 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 69-53.

When the buzzer sounded in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, senior forward Alyssa Ustby threw her arms out and let out a loud, emphatic and foot-stomp-worthy yell. 

UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) and senior forward Alexandra Zelaya (0) celebrate their win against Duke at Carmichael Arena on Sunday March 3, 2024. UNC defeated Duke 63-59.

Across the court, senior guard Deja Kelly slammed the ball into the hardwood before sharing a chest bump with junior center Maria Gakdeng. 

For the senior duo of Ustby and Kelly, the moment was a release of uncontainable happiness. Revenge was finally earned. 

Thanks to a combined 35-point effort from Ustby and Kelly, North Carolina scraped by Duke, 63-59, on Sunday’s Senior Day. While Ustby led the offensive front during the first half and made key plays down the final stretch, Kelly’s clutch free throws officially notched the win for UNC.

UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) shoots a free-throw during the women’s basketball game versus Duke in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, March 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 69-53.

“I was just so happy,” Ustby said. “It’s a long season, and it’s hard to get any win in the ACC — let alone when you’re playing your rival.”

After the Tar Heels fell to the Blue Devils in overtime in the first meeting of the season, Ustby said the team kept repeating “This is revenge” in the hours leading up to Sunday's contest. She said they knew it was not going to be easy, but they were going to get this one — even if they got pushed around and every call didn’t go their way. 

“It just wasn’t gonna go any other way,” graduate guard Lexi Donarski said. "And that senior class, they put their minds to it.” 

Ustby made her presence known immediately, as she led North Carolina in scoring with 13 points in the first half. With every layup, floater and finish through contact, Ustby kept the Tar Heels in the game, even as a streaky and physical Duke retook the lead heading into halftime.  

Then, when Ustby's offensive momentum slowed in the second half, she made a game-saving block. 

With nine seconds on the clock and UNC leading 61-59, Blue Devil center Kennedy Brown rebounded a missed Duke free throw and tried to fling it back towards the basket. A made shot would have tied the game. Instead, the ball slapped into Ustby’s outstretched arms, allowing the UNC senior to grab it and hand it off to a teammate. 

UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said she showed Ustby film before the game to remind the senior that her impact goes beyond scoring. Even during a shooting drought, she rebounds, blocks, steals and makes plays. 

UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Utsby (1) dives for the ball on the ground during the women’s basketball game versus Duke in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, March 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 69-53.

Ustby's father, Todd, said he expects that kind of 100 percent effort from his daughter. Still, he admitted he was nervous the entire morning leading up to the game, and then sitting on the edge of his chair by tip-off. He wouldn’t let himself relax — not until the victory was clinched. 

“To be here to watch Alyssa play in what could be her last game at home is a good way to go,” he said. “But I’m hoping she’ll be back.”

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The second piece of the duo, Kelly, was a quiet force — until the team needed her the most. The senior guard exploded for 12 points in the fourth quarter and knocked down four free throws in crunch time. 

As she stepped up to the line with 5.4 seconds to go following Ustby’s block, Kelly had one thing on her mind.

“I need to hit my damn free throws because I missed every other one," she said. 

Kelly did go 4-for-7 from the charity stripe on Sunday, but when it mattered the most, she sealed the game. She made both. 

Banghart can only describe her in one way: a killer. 

UNC senior guard Deja Kelly (25) celebrates her win against Duke at Carmichael Arena on Sunday March 3, 2024. UNC defeated Duke 63-59.

Throughout the ebbs and flows of Kelly’s senior season, the head coach said she told her the only thing they need is for her to find a way to help the Tar Heels win. And on Sunday, she did just that. 

“If it is my last time in Carmichael,” Kelly said, “it definitely went out with a bang.”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com