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UNC women's basketball falls to South Carolina in 47-point NCAA tournament loss

UNC senior guard/forward Alyssa Ustby (1) reaches for the ball during the second round game of the Women’s NCAA tournament against the University of South Carolina in the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina on Sunday, March 24, 2024.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — UNC couldn’t find its rhythm.

Down three points in the opening minutes, senior guard Deja Kelly attempted to create space off junior center Maria Gakdeng’s screen. Instead, she fumbled the ball, and South Carolina’s Raven Johnson took off with it in transition. 

A minute later, sophomore guard Indya Nivar attempted to drive through the lane for a fast-break layup — only to be blocked by USC's MiLaysia Fulwiley. 

South Carolina was on its way to ending the quarter on an 15-0 run. When you combine the fast-paced tempo and lights-out shooting of the Gamecocks with the Tar Heels' lack of offensive rhythm, it was a perfect storm, in head coach Courtney Banghart’s words. 

“They shot way above their average, and we shot below our average,” she said. “Mathematically, it’s never going to go so well for you.”

Haunted by offensive inefficiency and early turnovers, No. 8-seeded North Carolina fell to No. 1-seeded South Carolina on Sunday 88-41 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. UNC struggled against USC’s disruptive defense in the first half, creating an early 37-point trench too deep to climb out of.

“They came out punching,” Kelly said. “They whooped our ass from the jump. Then, offensively, we couldn’t get going, we couldn’t get movement. Sometimes, we couldn’t even get the ball past the 3-point line.”

Graduate guard Lexi Donarski said it simply took the Tar Heels too long to settle in. North Carolina was not getting the looks it wanted, and players were not getting to the right spots. USC also started utilizing its full-court press on UNC’s first possession, immediately stunting the Tar Heels' offensive execution. 

By the end of the first quarter, North Carolina was shooting 24 percent from the field. For every missed basket or ill-timed turnover, South Carolina took advantage. The Gamecocks ended the first ten minutes of regulation shooting 59 percent and knocked down three triples.

To Nivar, it felt like South Carolina was hitting every shot it took. And for North Carolina? 

“I felt like there were moments when I had great, wide open looks,” senior forward Alyssa Ustby said. “Those didn’t knock down, and sometimes that’s how it goes.”

Ustby was the lone Tar Heel in double-digit scoring, while the Gamecocks had five such players. But missing shots was not the only issue for UNC — South Carolina also implemented a defensive scheme that smothered North Carolina’s go-to actions.

Nivar said South Carolina targeted Kelly, the catalyst of UNC’s offense. To Kelly, it felt like there were two defenders on her at all times, limiting ball movement and scoring opportunities for the veteran.

While battling contact, Kelly lost her footing and fell to the hardwood at the four-minute mark of the first quarter. Fulwiley pounced for a coast-to-coast bucket. Then, three minutes later, Kelly caught the ball off the in-bound and tried to put up a shot. Fulwiley silenced her with another block. 

Eventually, there was no response to the Gamecocks' defensive intensity. 

Nail-biting, hard-fought and close are words likely associated with recent North Carolina versus South Carolina games. The past two matchups have been determined by eight points or less. Yet on Sunday, that staple characteristic was seemingly absent. Look no further than the seven points the Tar Heels scored in the final quarter compared to South Carolina's 18. 

“It’s tough,” Kelly said. “They’re number one for a reason, and I think we let that get to us early. We didn’t really show any fight back until the second half, which by then it was obviously too late.” 


@dthsports |

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