By R.L. Bynum
North Carolina’s women picked a fine time to be playing their best basketball of the season as they navigate through life on the NCAA tournament bubble.
With freshman point guard Deja Kelly playing her best game in weeks and Stephanie Watts becoming the 24th player in program history to eclipse 1,500 career points, it was a feel-good night for the Tar Heels.
Carolina won its third consecutive game for the first time since starting the season 5–0 and led by as many as 23 points on its way to an important 77–64 victory at Clemson on Thursday night.
“I implored that if they trusted me that if we just kept getting better, good things would happen,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “This group is growing up and locking in defensively, which is leading to good offense. Just a big win on the road.”
Kelly equaled her combined point total from the previous six games with 19 points, and added three assists and two steals.
Watts continued her impressive play with a season-high 26 points, along with five rebounds and four steals, to put her career UNC point total at 1,519. She’s a big part of why the Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season after a rough January that put them on the bubble.
“I think a big thing for us is just toughness,” Watts said. “We have to be tougher on the defensive end. On the offensive end, finishing chippies, not letting the other team just bully us down low, getting a bunch of O boards, things like that. So I think it’s toughness and then just that sense of urgency that I think we’re locked in, really realizing and understanding what it takes to win in the ACC.”
UNC (11–8, 6–8 ACC) continued its dominance of the Tigers (10–8, 5–8), who dropped their fourth consecutive game. The Heels have won the last four meetings, nine out of the last 10 and 26 out of the last 28.
Entering Thursday’s game, Charlie Creme’s ESPN bracketology had UNC on the “last four in” list and Clemson in the “first four out.” There’s still plenty of work ahead for the Tar Heels to secure an NCAA berth as their last three regular-season games opponents all have winning records and better NET rankings.
After the Tar Heels visit No. 4 N.C. State (14–2, 9–2 after Thursday’s 66–47 win at Wake Forest) at noon Sunday (ESPN2), they meet Georgia Tech (13–5, 11–4 after Thursday’s 62–48 win at Florida State) at home on Feb. 25 at home, then visit Virginia Tech (11–7, 6–7) on Feb. 28. The Hokies already have beaten UNC twice.
“That’s a good conversation of ours,” Watts said of the postseason. “Our big goal: We’re going to the tournament. So, whatever we have to do to make that happen. We knew we needed a win tonight to make that happen, so everyone, I think, was just extra locked in.”
With a NET ranking of 37, which is ahead of Syracuse (43), Banghart likes her team’s resume coming into the final stretch with big wins already over the Orange and N.C. State. The Pack’s NET ranking is 10, with the Jackets No. 25 and the Hokies No. 26.
“There’s obviously some scheduling issues that the committee is gonna have to pay attention to,” Banghart said.
Her team was denied a likely home win over Boston College and is playing the Hokies three times in the regular season because of COVID-19-related scheduling shuffles.
“But we can only control what we can control. I made sure they realized after the Florida State game, that it’s going to be uphill from here,” Banghart said of the 61–51 home loss Feb. 4. “We’ve left too many on the table to kind of keep doing that. And so we’ve got to kind of change the mojo there and I think we’re playing well enough to do that.”
Carolina played some of its best defense of the season with a season-high 17 steals that helped put up 25 points off turnovers and 23 fast-break points.
“I think we guarded their sets pretty well, which kind of had them discombobulated a little bit,” Kelly said. “And that just sped us and we got some transition buckets and just kept building our energy throughout the whole game.”
Kelly played 38 minutes after combining for 41 in the previous three games when she was 1 of 16 from the floor. She played with a lot of confidence after making her first couple of shots and was a big sparkplug for UNC in the victory.
“Just seeing the ball go in the hoop was a big confidence-booster,” said Kelly, whose best previous scoring game was 22 in the Dec. 17 home victory over Syracuse.
“She’s done such a good job,” Banghart said. “I spent a lot of time with her, helping her understand that a lot of people get to kind of work their way into college basketball. Not her. She’s got to do it night after night.
“I thought the up-tempo play helps her because she’s really good with the ball in her hands,” Banghart said. “And she’s playing like a second-semester freshman. It isn’t about who you were, it’s about who you are. And we’re better now because Deja’s playing better. And she’s a huge part of the team. She’s been a warrior all year, and I’m glad to see it finally pay off in a good way for her.”
Watts went through her struggles earlier this season with six consecutive single-digit scoring games but has scored consistently in the eight games since then. She could relate to what Kelly has been going through.
“We’re just telling her to keep her confidence,” Watts said. “Everyone struggles, especially a freshman that’s new to the league. Everyone’s gonna have their ups and downs. Seniors have their ups and downs. I had my ups and downs. And I think our biggest thing is just telling her, ‘look, you’re a big piece of this team and we need you to win,’ and I think she knows that.”
Learning to play point guard in college when you were more of a combo guard in high school creates challenges. But her hard work and lessons along the way this season paid off Thursday.
“The biggest transition for me from high school to the collegiate level was probably just the pace of the game, the strength of everybody else,” Kelly said. “It’s definitely a big difference. So just kind of getting used to that. You know, I’m getting used to it — a little later —but I’m just happy that I’ve been having fun throughout the whole season. My teammates are amazing. So they’ve been really encouraging and just trying to get me back to being able to do anything I can to help the team and help us get to the tournament.”
Virtual tip jar
If you like this coverage of UNC Athletics, pass on an assist in the amount that matches the number worn by great Tar Heel playmakers such as Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall and Marcus Paige: 5.
The Tar Heels again showed the ability to succeed in many ways, even when some of their best players have bad offensive nights. Janelle Bailey was held to a season-low four points but led UNC with seven rebounds. Petra Holešínská was 1 of 7 from the floor for five points.
Carolina led by no more than four before earning a 17–16 advantage after one quarter behind seven points from Kelly.
A Kelly 3-pointer helped the Tar Heels score the first nine points of the second quarter, with a Watts layup making it 26–16 with 7:27 left as Clemson went scoreless for nearly five minutes. A steal and layup by Watts gave UNC a 36–24 halftime lead.
It was Carolina’s biggest halftime lead since taking a 13-point edge Dec. 17 at home against Syracuse.
The Tar Heels made it a rout with a 9–0 run early in the third quarter, going up 48–27 on Watts 3-pointer.
Now it’s on to Raleigh to face the rival Wolfpack on Sunday.
Carolina 77, Clemson 64
ACC pool photos