By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL —  When North Carolina sees Wolfpack red, it doesn’t seem to matter what N.C. State has accomplished before the game — the Tar Heels’ play shoots up several levels and challenges the Pack.

For the third consecutive season, the Tar Heels defeated a top-10 N.C. State team, this time taking down the No. 4 Wolfpack right after it had knocked off No. 1 Louisville.

Freshman Alyssa Ustby, after going scoreless in UNC’s bad Thursday loss to Florida State, injected plenty of offense with a double-double to lead the Tar Heels to a 76–69 victory Sunday at Carmichael Arena, their biggest of the season. 

“This game was a battle and it couldn’t have been accomplished without everybody working together and trusting one another,” Ustby said. “We all really stepped up to the challenge together and got it done. I took this rivalry very seriously and did my best to help my team come out with a win.”

The stagnant, sloppy offensive performance of Thursday was nowhere to be found as the Tar Heels (9–8, 4–8 ACC) had some of their best offensive chemistry of the season.   

Ustby, who scored 13 in the first half to help UNC take control, collected season-high totals of 20 points, 12 rebounds, four 3-pointers and five assists. 

Alyssa Ustby had the best game of her UNC career.
Freshman Alyssa Ustby collected season-highs of 20 points, 12 rebounds, four 3-pointers and five assists in Sunday’s upset of N.C. State.

“I think it started with just winning the paint and kicking to a teammate, and just playing with confidence was a big thing,” Ustby said. “I felt like a lot of our perimeter players really stepped up with that confidence.”

Two years ago, UNC ended State’s 21–0 unbeaten streak on Super Bowl Sunday in Raleigh, and last season in Chapel Hill handed the then 14–0 Pack its first loss last season. This time, the Heels dropped the Pack to 12–2 and 7–2. 

“We always seem to bring our A-game and I think that’s part of the whole UNC rivalry here,” said Watts, who had 17 points and two 3-pointers and was part of that win two years ago. “We consider our main rival Duke, but they’re down the road and we want to beat them. We want to show we are the team in Carolina, so we told the team about that. No matter how the season goes, we figure out a way to pull it out against State. We did that again, so we’re just excited.”

With a win Sunday, the Pack figured to jump to No. 1 in the country in the new AP poll Monday. But State probably didn’t figure on such a strong effort from the Tar Heels.

“These rivalry games are a sacred part of sports,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “I told [the team] that this is for the institution, it’s for our program, it’s for our tradition and you have to honor that with your energy, and they did that.”

Foul trouble limited Elissa Cunane, the Pack’s leading scorer, to 22 minutes and she fouled out with a team-leading 14 points. UNC had its share of foul trouble as well but was able to weather it

Anya Poole, right, guards Elissa Cunane, N.C. State’s leading scorer, who was held to 14 points.

Cunane converted a 3-point play and drew Bailey’s fourth foul to cut UNC’s lead to 69–65 with 1:52 left, but, 16 seconds later, she fouled out. Seven Watts free throws on four trips to the line after that shoved UNC’s lead to 76–67 with 33 seconds left.

The Tar Heels went with a four-guard starting lineup that, for the first time this season, didn’t include freshman Deja Kelly. Kennedy Todd-Williams started for the first time in an ACC game and played a lot at point guard as did Petra Holešínská, who started with Watts for only the second time.

Holešínská had 15 points and three 3-pointers as the Tar Heels made a season-high 11 3-pointers (they had 10 three times). The 42.3% 3-point shooting was the best against N.C. State this season.

Ustby started at the four spot with Malu Tshitenge out for medical reasons, which left UNC with only 10 players. Banghart went with the small lineup because of the way that State spreads the floor out.

“We knew that we couldn’t play two bigs with their mobility and length,” Banghart said. “Give the credit to Alyssa. She spent a lot of time in the gym over the last 72 hours figuring out where her looks were gonna come from. We really implored that she catches shot-ready because she’s going to be guarded by a four who’s used to guarding taller players.”

It was quite a turnaround from one of UNC’s worst games of the season against Florida State. It was so bad that Banghart wouldn’t show her team any tape of the game.

“We’ve been really stressing over the last three days the importance of moving the ball and so we adjusted our secondary to allow for that,” Banghart said. “I really tried to simplify it a little bit for them and implored ball movement and how many assists you get individually matters. And it made a huge difference.”

Watts said there was a bit of soul-searching after that 61–51 loss to the Noles.

“One-thousand percent,” Watts said. “We all came together and just said, ‘You know, it was unacceptable from all of us.’ We just all pointed inward and figured out what we could all do better. And I think a big thing is that we were communicating better. All that matters is coming out with energy and just locking in from the jump.” 

The Tar Heels didn’t play like a team that had lost three consecutive games and had only one 2021 victory.

“We know we’re a talented group,” Watts said. “We know it’s a lot of new people coming together and putting pieces together, so a lot of teams level off by this point. We realize we’re still getting better at this point. By the time we start gelling and really coming together, we can be great. We realized that, so we just knew we just needed to keep coming together, keep working hard every day.”

The teams traded 7-0 first-half runs, with UNC’s coming late in the first quarter and the Pack’s early in the second quarter. A 3-pointer and drive by Watts and an inside bucket by Ustby put UNC up by nine before taking a 37–30 halftime lead. It was only the second time the Pack has trailed at halftime this season.

“We knew it would be a dangerous game,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have an answer.”

After not attempting a free throw in the first half, UNC made 13 of 15 attempts in the second half, all taken Watts (7 of 8) and Bailey (6 of 7).

The Tar Heels scored the first five points of the second half on a 3-point play by Bailey, who only played 11 first-half minutes because she had two fouls. A Holešínská drive pushed the lead to 42–30 with 8:28 left in the third quarter.

Cunane went to the bench with three fouls with 6:58 left in the third quarter. But UNC went scoreless for more than three minutes before an Ustby basket made it 44–32 with 5:25 left as the Pack also went scoreless for two minutes and 28 seconds.

Two Kayla Jones free throws capped an 13–0 Pack run, all without Cunane, and State took a 52–49 lead into the fourth quarter.

At that point, Banghardt reminded her team that it has lost several games in the fourth quarter.

“I think we kept our feet on the gas instead of being tentative,” Banghart said.

Three-pointers from Holešínská and Todd-Williams gave UNC early fourth-quarter momentum, then Cunane picked up her fourth foul with 8:43 left and went back to the bench. Three Bailey free throws on two trips to the line gave the Heels a 58–54 edge with 7:48 left. 

Three-pointers by Ustby and Holešínská pushed the Heels’ lead to 64–58 with 4:13 remaining and a Watts 3 made it 69–62 with 2:11 left before putting the game away at the free-throw line.

Thanks to Thursday’s scheduled home game with Boston College being postponed because of COVID-19 issues in the Eagles program, Carolina doesn’t play again until it visits Pittsburgh (4–7, 2–6) next Sunday at 2 p.m. (ACC Network Extra). The Panthers lost 71–67 at home Sunday against Syracuse.

North Carolina 76, No. 4 N.C. State 69

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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