Tar Heels shake off two losses to start ACC season as Kelly has best floor game of the season, Bailey flourishes inside
By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Anybody who doubted North Carolina’s women after two narrow road losses to start the ACC season was repeatedly shot down Thursday night.
Against their first ranked opponent of the season, the Tar Heels took control early and never trailed to beat No. 18 Syracuse 92–68, handing the Orange its first loss of the season.
Carolina (6–2, 1–2 ACC) ended a five-game losing streak against Syracuse (4–1, 1–1) with its first win since Jan. 6, 2016. The three freshmen who were in UNC’s starting lineup — the most to start for the Tar Heels this season — were in ninth grade for that last win over the Orange.
The 92 points were the most the Orange has given up this season (the previous high was in an 82–72 win against Penn State).
“We’re kind of starting one step at a time with this young team and the way they practice develops a lot of fearlessness,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart, whose team scored the most points in an ACC game since she arrived at Chapel Hill. “It was just a matter of time until that fearlessness turns into trust and that’s what happened tonight, which was fun to see.”
It was UNC’s first over a ranked team since the Tar Heels beat No. 9 N.C. State at Carmichael on Jan. 9 last season. The 24-point win was the largest in an ACC game since beating Wake Forest 83–45 in 2015.
“We didn’t play basketball in the first two [ACC] games, we grew up,” Banghart said. “And today we played basketball and they were better.”
With the Tar Heels showing terrific flow and spacing on offense, they consistently got good shots inside (46.9% from the floor) and found the perimeter shooting range after shooting 13.5% from 3-point range in their first two ACC games (33.3%).
“We were able to space out their zone,” Banghart said. “We were able to utilize their size and try to pull it away from the basket to to give ourselves opportunities to pick and choose when to punish them inside.”
Twenty-two of Carolina’s 30 field goals were assisted while Syracuse managed only five assists.
“This is a good team,” Banghart said. “I’ve been saying that and I’m not changing my mind.”
Center Janelle Bailey led the way with a season-high 25 points, and Petra Holešínská came off the bench for the first time this season to score a season-high 21.
Bailey said it was a bit of a gut-check for the Tar Heels after two frustrating games.
“I was almost shocked that we were 0 and 2,” Bailey said. “It was just something like from within us to just gut-check individually and collectively and to just come in and take care of business, whether it was on the road or at home.”
Considering the competition, freshman point guard Deja Kelly had her best floor game of the season with 22 points, nine assists and five rebounds, all career-highs, and only two turnovers. Her counterpart, star Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia, was held to three points and one assist.
Many of her turnovers in the first two ACC games came against full-court pressure defense but she was able to navigate that with ease against a tough Syracuse team. Kelly said it was all about pace and dealing with that pressure better.
”I was able to get my teammates open shots,” Kelly said. “We were able to get transition layups, transition threes. And I think my pace helped that a lot. I attacked their press and was able to split through it and find the open man.”
Banghart said that eliminating the turnovers against pressure was huge for Kelly.
“She’s reliable with the ball in her hands,” said Banghart, noting most of her turnovers in recent games have come against full-court pressure. “She’s trying to play faster and get herself to play faster in the quarter court. She takes really good care of the basketball. And we needed that tonight. I thought she played a great game. She’s continually playing a better pace game after game.”
The 13 turnovers were the fewest by the Tar Heels since committing nine against High Point late last month.
Bailey scored the first six points of the game and didn’t seem fazed by Syracuse’s height, mainly 6-7 freshman Kamilla Cardoso.
“It doesn’t really bother me because I know I’m tall, too,” said the 6-4 Bailey. “I came across some people that are tall and they’ll have long arms and vice versa. I got my shot blocked twice. That’s what they’re supposed to do. So, I don’t really care. I just took one possession at a time and kept going.”
Bailey’s added mobility again made a big difference on defense against Syracuse, which allowed Carolina to switch screens effectively.
“Last year, we weren’t able to switch much, and so all those ball screens would have bothered us,” Banghart said. “And now she’s guarding on the perimeter like a guard which really helps us and she still obviously has the size.”
UNC netted as many 3-pointers in the first half (5) as it did combined in a 57–54 loss at Wake Forest and a 67–63 defeat at Miami and finished with eight. After making only 10 of 22 free-throw attempts against the Hurricanes, Carolina hit 24 of 31 against Syracuse.
Three-pointers dominated Syracuse’s game, with perimeter shots put up so often that even the Houston Rockets might think the Orange took too many. Although the ratio got more reasonable in the second half, 24 of Syracuse’s 36 first-half shots were 3-point attempts, with seven going in.
Leading the way early in her first career start was freshman Alyssa Ustby, with six of her 10 points in the first quarter. Her two first-half 3-pointers matched her season total before Thursday. She started along with freshmen Anya Poole and Kelly.
Ustby replaced Holešínská in the lineup, but the graduate transfer found the perimeter range after missing her first 11 3-point tries in ACC play. She made her second try Thursday and had four 3-pointers in the game.
Bailey scored the game’s first six points, then a Kelly 3 made it 9–0 before Syracuse finally scored on a 3 by Lewis with 6:12 left. Ustby’s 3-pointer with 5:54 left in the first quarter was part of a 14–3 UNC run.
It took 5:33 for Syracuse to net more points than Bailey at 9–8, and that was while she was on the bench.
Syracuse went scoreless in the last 4:27 of the first quarter, after which UNC led 21–9. The Tar Heels led by as many as 18 points with 2:07 left in the first half before taking a 45–32 halftime lead.
The Orange got double-doubles from Emily Engster (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Cardoso (11 points and 13 rebounds).
Next, the Tar Heels welcome Wake Forest to Carmichael at 1 p.m. Sunday (ACC Network Extra) with a chance to avenge their Dec. 10 loss in Winston-Salem. That will be the Tar Heels’ third game in seven days and, after that, they get 11 days off before a rematch at Syracuse on New Year’s Eve at 2 p.m.
UNC 92, No. 18 Syracuse 68
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications