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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels show renewed physicality in gritty 63-59 win over Blue Devils

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UNC junior forward/center Maria Gakdeng (5) and senior guard/forward Alyssa Utsby (1) try to steal back the ball during the women's basketball game against Duke in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, March 3, 2024. UNC defeated Duke 63-59.

UNC head coach Courtney Banghart threw her hands up in the air and shouted on the North Carolina sideline.

With a little over three minutes left in the third quarter, the Tar Heel women’s basketball team found itself one point ahead of Duke. Following an inbound pass, senior guard Alyssa Ustby attempted to drive to the basket. 

Instead of finding an easy lane, she was met by Kennedy Brown. As the 6-foot-6 Duke center pressured Ustby by repeatedly slamming into her, the Carolina Blue-clad player fell to the ground. The referee signaled that Ustby traveled. Banghart thought it was a foul. The head coach yelled. 

“We knew that it wasn’t going to be easy at all,” Ustby said. “We had to expect coming into it like we’re going to get pushed.”

During UNC’s 63-59 victory over Duke on Sunday afternoon, the Tar Heels were met by a physical Blue Devil team. As the rivals dove for every rebound and battled in the post, North Carolina players were consistently challenged while protecting and driving to the basket. In the days leading up to the last regular season contest, Banghart prepared her team for the two-hour battle by shifting the defense completely. By employing a defense that propelled the Tar Heels’ physicality, they stifled that of Duke’s.

“We knew that they were gonna be physical coming in," graduate guard Lexi Donarski said, "but that was something we talked about defensively that we had to bring."

At practice on Friday, Banghart tasked them with learning something they had not used all season: a 2-3 zone defense. 

The players focused on a simple walkthrough to study and learn the sets. On Saturday, Banghart challenged her players with a live version of it. Using the team’s relentless “practice guys,” UNC was met with an early test against a group that resembled a squad like Duke who refused to hold back.

“They bring it defensively and we bring it right back to them when we’re on defense," Donarski said.

Along with learning the zone defense, the Tar Heels tasked themselves with playing into the physicality. Using this as a “revenge” game, Ustby pushed herself to not get too worked up — to become so overcome with emotion that senseless mistakes are made.

“I’m so competitive that if I miss a shot sometimes, I try to overcompensate for it and try to get the ball back and I’ll hit somebody’s arm,” Ustby said.

With hours of practice under their belt and a new mentality, the Tar Heels worked to shut down the Blue Devils. To take their rival's physicality and stick it right back to them. 

In the second quarter, North Carolina’s practice came to fruition. With a little over eight minutes remaining in the half, Duke’s Jadyn Donovan tried to drive to the rim in transition. The guard was met with the tandem of Ustby and senior guard Deja Kelly on the double team. After being slammed by Kelly, Donovan was forced to pass back outside. 

Time and time again, the Tar Heels stripped the Blue Devils of the ball or locked them out of the post completely. UNC's renewed physicality paid off down the stretch; 13 of Duke's 17 turnovers came in the second half.

Banghart felt her team needed to be more physical, so she created a plan that would allow them to do just that.“You gotta do what you gotta do," she said, "and today we felt like we needed a little bit different defense to give them a different look.”

@_emmahmoon

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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