By R.L. Bynum

There was a lot to like and a little history in Carolina’s impressive victory Sunday over the team favored to win Conference USA.

The Charlotte 49ers were coming off an impressive opening-game victory at Richmond but were no match for the Tar Heels. The 89–33 Carolina road win at Halton Arena in Charlotte was the 1,000th win in program history.

Three sophomores, Alyssa Ustby (18 points, career-high 11 rebounds, career-high-tying 5 assists), Anya Poole (career-high 17 points, 9 rebounds) and Kennedy Todd-Williams (career-high-tying 14 points, 9 rebounds), led the way.

“Those are guys that are just so much better than they were a year ago. We counted on them last year too but they’re much improved,” Coach Courtney Banghart said.

Banghart, off to her third 2–0 start in as many seasons, said that she was proud to be part of the legacy of a program with 1,000 victories. Carolina is the 18th Division I program to reach the milestone and Notre Dame is the only other ACC program to do it. The Tar Heels are 1,000–480 as they are two games into their 47th season.

“There’s not a lot of programs that can say they similarly have 1,000 wins as a program,” she said. “I knew when I took this job, I was taking over an opportunity to be in charge of one of the great traditions in women’s basketball and our kids showed with great connectedness and effort what that means tonight. It was really fitting that this was the 1,000th win.”

The victory margin may be a gauge of how much better UNC (2–0) is this season after the 49ers (1–1) battled the Heels well at Carmichael last season before losing 81–75. Charlotte had no carryover from its 63–45 win over Richmond.

The biggest overall improvement from the season-opening 92–47 victory over N.C. A&T was rebounding. That was a point of emphasis in practice after A&T outrebounded UNC 36–32 and the Tar Heels only pulled down 29% of their misses. UNC won the rebounding battle Sunday 50–27 and rebounded 52.9% of its misses.

Just like in the opener, Banghart started three guards — Carlie Littlefield, Deja Kelly and Todd-Williams — Ustby at wing and Poole at center. For that lineup to work, Ustby and Todd-Williams have to do their part under the boards.

“We talked about how we can’t just be a team that stands around and watches our post players battle for the glass. They have to care about their defensive rebounding total on the stat sheet,” said Banghart after Charlotte rebounded 27.9% of its misses. “They have to, and we really looked at Alyssa and Toddy [Todd-Williams] in particular and said we need you guys to pull down rebounds and that needs to be important, and it needs to matter. And it sure did.”

Just like against A&T, UNC created offense with its defense. The Tar Heels scored 31 points off of 23 Charlotte turnovers. UNC got 10 steals, including two each from Littlefield, Eva Hodgson, Malu Tshitenge and Destiny Adams.

Ustby was assertive all over the court. The 49ers weren’t able to better her point total until 5:30 remained in the third quarter on a Jada McMillian free throw.

Octavia Jett-Wilson, who scored 22 at UNC last season, and KeKe McKinney led the 49ers with eight points and McMillian, who had 15 at Carmichael last season, added 6.

“Tonight was just an example of us playing together. We’re playing cohesively on offense and defense,” Ustby said. “It was just a great win. We had a lot of contributors and we held each other accountable on defense and that’s a huge thing in order to get those tough team wins.”

It was Ustby’s third career double-double and Banghart said Ustby’s +51 for the game was “like Monopoly numbers.”

Fans saw Ustby’s dynamic talent during her freshman season and that’s only gotten better.

“I think she’s a better basketball player now,” Banghart said. “I think I need to continue to help her become a little bit more assertive. I think what we always talk about with her is that she’s so unselfish.  She’s a whole lot better than she was last year at being able to be assertive. But I think we’ll continue to kind of infuse her with how important she is and how dangerous she can be all over the floor. But a kid that plays that hard and can sustain that many minutes playing that hard. I mean, it’s just a coach’s dream. There’s not many of them like them.”

Poole again started at center and showed off a nice mid-range jump shot that fans didn’t see in games last season. She played 24 minutes, the most since playing 30 against Syracuse last season on Dec. 17.

“Anya’s put a lot of time in,” Banghart said. “We got to work with her all offseason. So, that makes a huge difference. Her first summer here, because of COVID, we didn’t get a lot of chances to spend time with her and then we got a lot of time over the last six months to get her better. And her footwork has always been good. Part of it is between the ears of the confidence of knowing that she can score in a variety of ways. She’s a very willing passer. She’s our best physical threat inside. Her ability to stretch the floor is continuing to be a huge part of what we want to do.”

She will be an important player as UNC tries to not only fill the void left by the graduation of Janelle Bailey but the loss of freshman Teonni Key for the season.

Poole agreed that the offseason work was huge for her development and that she’s a willing passer. The last part is good, but Banghart wants her to shoot more.

“I came in and we worked every single day on different things like the high-post jumpers and even the short-corner jumpers and even just me being confident in scoring under the low block,” Poole said, adding that Banghart repeatedly telling her that she needs to score changed her mindset. “It gave me confidence in doing what I know how to do — shoot, make my layups and do what I’ve got to do.”

UNC freshman Destiny Adams battles for a rebound during the Tar Heels’ easy victory Sunday in Charlotte.

Kelly (top photo) scored in double figures with 11 points and was 7 of 8 shooting from the free-throw line.

Ustby’s driving layup started the game, then Poole blocked a shot and scored four points, including on a jumper. Kelly added three free throws to give UNC the first nine points of the game.

After the 49ers finally scored, UNC went on a 12–0 run, sparked by a couple of impressive moves by Littlefield, who finished with eight points and three assists.

The Tar Heels led 27–3 after one quarter, the fewest points by an opponent since they held South Carolina State to three second-quarter points last season in a 98–28 win on Dec. 3.

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The lead reached 46–11 by halftime, the lowest opponent output in a half since UNCG could only muster 11 first-half points in last season’s 96–38 Carolina win on Nov. 28.

UNC then scored the first eight points of the second half.

How much can Banghart conclude from a blowout game in the big picture?

“A lot,” she said “We know that we have to be a two-way team, you know — an offensive and a defensive team. Tonight they were a great two-way team. And then they really pursued on the glass. So a lot. This is a really good basketball team. I still think this is an NCAA tournament team that we just beat by 60 on their home floor. We can take a lot from this game. And then we’ve got a big week coming up and we’ll keep getting better.”

The Tar Heels return home Wednesday night for a 6 o’clock game against Appalachian State (ACC Network Extra). The Mountaineers are 2–1 after an 80–66 home win Sunday over N.C. Central. ASU beat Lees-McRae 75–41 in its opener at home and lost 61–57 at Mercer. 

UNC 89, Charlotte 33

DateScores, record/day, date, TVLocationOpponent
November
992–47 winHomeN.C. A&T
1489–33 win, 2–0RoadCharlotte
17Wednesday, 6, ACCNXHomeAppalachian State
21X-Sunday, 4:30, ESPN+RoadTCU
26Y-Friday, TBABimini, BahamasVCU or Washington
27Y-Saturday, TBABimini, BahamasVCU or Washington
December
1X-Wednesday, 9, BTNRoadMinnesota
5Sunday, 2, ACCNXHomeJames Madison
12Sunday, 2, ACCNXHomeUNC Asheville
15Wednesday, 6, ACCNXHomeJacksonville
19Sunday, 2, ACCNXRoadBoston College
21Tuesday, 1, ACCNXHomeAlabama State
30Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomeSyracuse
January
2Sunday, 6, ACCNHomeClemson
6Thursday, 8, ACCNRoadN.C. State
9Sunday, 6, ACCNHomeVirginia Tech
16Sunday, 1, RSNRoadNotre Dame
20Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomeVirginia
23Sunday, noon, ACCNRoadGeorgia Tech
27Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadDuke
30Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCNHomeN.C. State
February
3Thursday, 8, RSNRoadWake Forest
6Sunday, noon, ACCNHomeMiami
10Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomePittsburgh
13Sunday, 1, ACCNXRoadVirginia Tech
17Thursday, 6, RSNHomeLouisville
20Sunday, noon, RSNRoadFlorida State
24Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadVirginia
27Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCNHomeDuke
March
2–
6
ACC TournamentGreensboro
ACCNX — ACC Network Extra (ESPN3); ESPN+ — Premium online streaming service; BTN — Big Ten Network;
ACCN — ACC Network; RSN — regional sports networks;
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y —Goombay Splash; Z — Maggie Dixon Classic

Credit for photos: Mike Slade for UNC Athletic Communications

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