By R.L. Bynum
Deja Kelly’s run of terrific games has likely made her dream of finishing the season at home in Texas a reality.
The freshman from San Antonio tied her season-high of 22 points for the second consecutive game as North Carolina avenged two earlier losses to Virginia Tech and rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit for a 68–63 victory at Blacksburg, Va., on Sunday.
The win was the fourth in the last five games for the Tar Heels (13–9, 8–9 ACC) and all but assured them a berth into the NCAA tournament, which this season will be played entirely in the San Antonio area.
“Since they announced that the tournament was going to be held in San Antonio, that’s been my personal and our team goal,” said Kelly, who lives about 15 minutes away from the Alamodome. “It’s really personal for me just to be able to play in front of my family and things like that. It’s just amazing for us to go dance.”
First-round NCAA games will be played in Austin, San Marcos and San Antonio, with the Alamodome hosting all games starting with the regional semifinals. Kelly’s high school career ended last season with two victories at the Alamodome to win the Class 6A state title and title game MVP honors.
After UNC’s convincing victory Thursday over Georgia Tech, it moved to the top of Charlie Creme’s “last four in” list on his ESPN projection and up to No. 34 in the NET rankings. The win over the Hokies now has UNC off that “last four in” list and No. 32 in the NET rankings, with ESPN projects the Heels as a No. 10 seed. The Tar Heels’ are no doubt in after beating the Hokies (13–8, 8–8), who have a No. 25 NET ranking and had won a program-record six consecutive ACC games.
UNC coach Courtney Banghart said that it’s huge for her team to finally escape the tournament bubble.
“A month ago, the tournament wasn’t looking so good,” she said. “I told them before the game I said, ‘I’m not on the committee, but if you win this game you’re in.’ Until you see your name, unless you’ve won your conference, you always have a little bit of a stomachache.”
Next for the Tar Heels is a quarterfinal matchup Thursday at the ACC tournament in Greensboro (see bracket below) as the No 8 seed against No. 9 Wake Forest (11–11, 8–10), which split two regular-season games with UNC. The Deacons have lost three consecutive games after a 59–51 loss Sunday at Florida State.
Virginia Tech had seen Kelly before in its 66–54 win in Chapel Hill and the earlier 73–69 victory in Blacksburg, but not this version.
“I told Deja before the tip, ‘you know, Virginia Tech’s never seen you play basketball,’ ” Banghart said. “Because the first two games I don’t know what you were doing. Let’s show them you play basketball, and she did that.”
Kelly scored 22 points in a Dec. 17 win over Syracuse but had only two double-figure scoring games in a stretch of 10 games — both against the Hokies — before her current streak of four consecutive double-figure scoring games.
During tough stretches, Kelly said she just kept working, hoping that the good play would come.
“I think it’s starting to come a little bit,” said Kelly, who played all 40 minutes. “And I think it’s coming at the right time. I think I’m playing well at the right time. I think our team is just playing great at the right time.”
There were some doubts the past few weeks about whether she’d be able to finish her freshman season in Texas.
“The intensity was kind of a lot. Most definitely, just knowing that we needed this game in order to solidify our spot because, of course, we’ve been kind of on the bubble,” Kelly said. “For the past few weeks, we wanted to not have to worry about being on the bubble. So, that was kind of our mentality going through practice. And then just not letting a team beat us three times. That just couldn’t happen with us. We just had a really good mentality coming into this game.”
To get that unofficial tournament clincher, it took one of Janelle Bailey’s best games of the season. She produced her second consecutive double-double and 43rd of her career with 12 points and 12 rebounds, and got the better of her matchup with talented Hokies center Elizabeth Kitley.
After Kitley scored 18 points and 27 points in Virginia Tech’s earlier two victories over UNC, she was held to a season-low eight points and seven rebounds.
“She is a great player. She does great on the block and yeah, she was part of the game plan,” Bailey said. “You know they have those people on the wing that shoot lights out so it was a total team effort.”
Stephanie Watts and Petra Holešínská both scored 11 points and made big baskets down the stretch.
Kelly picked up where she left off with a driving 3-point play and a baseline drive in the first two minutes as UNC jumped out to an 11–5 lead before leading 19–18 after one quarter.
Virginia Tech took a 38–25 lead with a 15–2 run capped by a Georgia Amoore 3-pointer from the left wing with 3:43 left in the first half. UNC 3-pointers from Kelly and Ariel Young trimmed it to 38–31 but the Hokies responded with a 7–0 run that included a 5-point possession to lead 45–31 at halftime.
The Hokies shot 50% from the floor and made seven 3-pointers in the first half. UNC went from shooting 52.9% in the first quarter to 28.6% in the second quarter. That was the biggest halftime deficit in the three meetings after the Hokies led by three and two points in the two previous games after the first half.
Banghart said she just hoped the Hokies couldn’t keep shooting that well, but made sure her team was more active defensively in the second half.
“We were switching and guarding the ball reactively versus actively,” Banghart said of their first-half defense.
On offense, she made some spacing adjustments that worked.
“For the most part, I just said we just need to lock in and make shots,” Banghart said. “Tried to keep them confident, tried to make it cerebral so that they understood that I like their emotion, I like how hard they played. It was more a quick, few cerebral adjustments.”
The changes worked as Virginia Tech shot 21% from the floor in the second half with two 3-pointers. The Tar Heels shot 43.3% in the second half and 6 of 13 from 3-point range after making only 2 of 10 first-half 3-point attempts.
“They were shooting really well in the first half,” Kelly said of the Hokies. “So, our adjustment kind of in the second half was just really locking into keeping high hands on everything, on switches, on handoffs, on ball screens, because that’s kind of where they were pulling from, and just kind of running them off the line and making them have to finish at the rim. And then we’ll be able to rotate over and things like that.”
Holešínská’s 3-pointer with 6:39 left in the third quarter after missing her first 5 shots from 3-point range cut the lead to 45–36 and capped a 5–0 UNC run. A Kelly 3 cut it to 46–39 with 5:44 remaining in the third.
Three-pointers by Holešínská and Kelly and a Kelly jumper sparked a 10–3 UNC run to trim the deficit to 53–52 entering the final quarter as the Tar Heels were 5 of 10 from 3-point range in the period.
A 3-pointer and a driving hook shot from Holešínská gave UNC a 57–53 lead in the first two minutes of the final quarter. Watt’s steal and layup and a Bailey free throw pushed the lead to 60–56 but Kitley’s bucket tied it at 60 with 4:33 left.
An Ustby free throw and layup off of a Bailey assist a minute apart put UNC up by three before a reverse baseline layup by Bailey pushed the lead to 65–60.
“If it was second game of the ACC, I don’t know if he would have come back tonight and just stayed together,” Bailey said. “But you could tell the look on everybody’s faces — whether it was people on the bench or on the floor — that we were going to get the job done. I feel like it was just a total team win, so so I’m just so happy.”
Tech cut it to 66–63 on an Amoore 3-pointer with 21 seconds left, but Watts put the game away with two free throws with 21 seconds left.
Amoore led the Hokies with 22 points, with Aisha Sheppard adding 14 and Azana Baines 12.
Carolina 68, Va. Tech 63
ACC tournament bracket
ACC pool photo by Matt Genrty