By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — There have been plenty of positives in three easy Carolina women’s victories to start the season. It all starts with defense and rebounding.
The Tar Heels continue to make life miserable for opposing offenses. In an 89–44 victory Wednesday over Appalachian State, they led by as many as 45 points as they built momentum ahead of three consecutive games against Power 5 conference opponents.
Carolina (3–0) has forced at least 24 turnovers in all three wins after not doing that in consecutive games since 2016. UNC outrebounded ASU 60–38 and the Heels rebounded 44% of their misses.
“It’s not just about putting a ball in the basket,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of the emphasis on defense. “And that’s been the biggest shift for our team. We can be really good on that end. In the first two games, we were great. Today, we were just good, and we’ll challenge our guys to be great moving forward.”
Maintaining the defensive intensity after leading by 33 at halftime proved to be a challenge as ASU scored 10 points in the first 3½ minutes of the second half after only managing nine in the first half.
“I thought we had some lapses with our energy and effort,” said Banghart, whose team hasn’t trailed this season. “The heart of a champion doesn’t play like that. So, we weren’t quite at our standard defensively tonight.”
The Mountaineers (2–2) probably turned the ball over a few times on the way to the team bus after piling up 28 turnovers at Carmichael Arena, leading to 26 Carolina points. They had only two field goals in the first half, finishing the game 15 of 63 from the floor (23.8%). UNC had 15 steals, led by three from Kennedy Todd-Williams.
UNC leads the ACC in scoring average (90 points per game), scoring margin (+48.7), defensive field-goal percentage (25.5%), defensive 3-point-shooting percentage (18.1%), steals (14.6 per game) and turnover margin (+13), and is second in scoring defense (41.3).
“I thought it kind of ended a little sloppy. But I thought in the beginning, we did good,” said Deja Kelly, who scored a game-high 18 points. “I thought our defense was pretty good. We were pretty active. They shoot a lot of threes. But I think we did a good job of keeping them from attacking the basket and getting in the passing lanes and getting deflections, which led to a lot of points in the first half.”
All 11 Tar Heels scored, led by Kelly, who found the shooting touch with a trio of 3-pointers (including a 4-point play). She was 7 of 15 from the floor after shooting 31.6% in the first two games.
“In the Charlotte game, I just missed shots that I usually make,” Kelly said of the 89–33 road win Sunday. “I wasn’t really going to dwell on that. Obviously this game I’m still taking the shots that I would usually take and luckily today they went in, and I think that that was a little bit of a confidence booster for me moving forward.”
Kelly, who is eighth in the ACC in scoring at 14.7 points per game, expects a lot of support from friends and family at 4:30 p.m. Sunday when she goes back home to Texas for the Tar Heels’ game at TCU (ESPN+) as they play the next four games away from Carmichael.
Point guard Carlie Littlefield had seven points and six assists, with Todd-Williams collecting seven points, five assists and 12 rebounds. Guard Eva Hodgson contributed six points, four rebounds and three assists.
“Carlie, Eva and Lys are fighting each other in terms of how aggressive and physical and just relentless [they are],” Banghart said of the two transfer guards and sophomore Alyssa Ustby, who had eight points, eight rebounds and four assists. “They’re dogged, they’re competitive and they’re consistent. So, the version they bring of themselves every day that you guys see? We see it, too, every single day. That’s how they are. And, so, that’s been a huge catalyst and a definer of a program for sure.”
Littlefield is tied for third in the ACC in steals with 2.7 per game and in assist/turnover ratio at 3.5 (14 assists against four turnovers).
Center Anya Poole followed up a career-high 17 points at Charlotte with 16 against ASU and blocked three shots to match her total from the first two games.
“The difference between this year and last year is that I don’t dwell on my misses,” said Poole, who didn’t have much to dwell on during an 8-of-12 shooting night. “So, if I miss them, I get back on defense, do something else better. Me not dwelling on my misses really helped me with my confidence.”
Poole is this in the ACC in field-goal percentage at 65.4%.
Morasha Wiggins notched a pair of 3-pointers. She and fellow freshman Destiny Adams each scored 10 points, with all of Adams’ scoring coming in the final period.
“You never forget your first game when you score double figures,” Banghart said of the freshman. “Des in very limited minutes made a huge impact. And then Morasha showed you what she can do on both ends really, her athleticism and all that she can provide for us. So, young guys contributing early in the season and scoring that many points, it’s a lot of things to be happy about.”
UNC was far from crisp during extended stretches on offense, particularly in the second half, and they won’t be able to get away with that against tougher upcoming opponents. Part of that is that the Heels hadn’t faced as much zone defense as the Mountaineers threw at them.
“We’re still learning to play at the pace you want to play at,” Banghart said. “But we were sloppy at times.”
The two biggest concerns offensively for the Tar Heels were 8 of 16 shooting from the free-throw line and 17 turnovers. Many of those turnovers were unforced.
For the second consecutive game, the only competitive question was how long it would take the opponent to collect as many points as UNC’s leading scorer at that point.
In the win at Charlotte, the 49ers didn’t have more points than Ustby until 5:30 remained in the third quarter. Monday, the Mountaineers didn’t collect more points than Kelly until Alexia Allesch’s 3-pointer with 6:30 left in the third quarter to make it 52–17.
Appalachian State, picked to finish 6th in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference, was overmatched from the start.
Despite making only 2 of its first 10 shots, Carolina scored the first eight points of the game and a Todd-Williams’ 3-pointer made it 13–2 after 5½ minutes. It took nearly seven minutes for the Mountaineers to score a field goal.
UNC held an opponent to fewer than five first-quarter points for the second consecutive game, leading 22–4 after the opening quarter. Charlotte scored three in the opening quarter Sunday.
Carolina went on a 15–0 second-quarter run on its way to leading 40–7 at halftime. That was the fewest first-half points by a UNC opponent since the Heels held Air Force to nine in an 87–26 home win Nov. 8, 2013.
Appalachian scored 19 in the third quarter but that was UNC’s best offensive quarter of the game with 26 points. An 11–0 Appalachian State run trimmed its deficit to 37 with only two UNC starters on the court with 3:48 left.
Ustby and Todd-Williams are tied for fourth in the ACC in rebounding with 8.7 per game. Todd-Williams is tied for third in offensive rebounding at 3.3 per game.
The game at TCU (1–1) is part of the Maggie Dixon Classic. The Horned Frogs beat Houston Baptist 78–48 in their season opener on Nov. 9 and lost in double overtime 88–78 at Tulane on Tuesday night.
In some scheduling news, the schedule for the Goombay Splash in Bimini, Bahamas, has been finalized. UNC faces VCU at 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26, and Washington at noon on Saturday, Nov. 27. Both games will air on Flo Sports, a premium streaming service.
UNC 89, Appalachian State 44
|Date||Score, record/day, time, TV||Location||Opponent|
|9||92–47 win||Home||N.C. A&T|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||X-Sunday, 4:30, ESPN+||Road||TCU|
|26||Y-Friday, 1 p.m., Flo Sports||Bimini, Bahamas||VCU|
|27||Y-Saturday, noon, Flo Sports||Bimini, Bahamas||Washington|
|1||X-Wednesday, 9, BTN||Road||Minnesota|
|5||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Home||James Madison|
|12||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Home||UNC Asheville|
|15||Wednesday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Jacksonville|
|19||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Road||Boston College|
|21||Tuesday, 1, ACCNX||Home||Alabama State|
|30||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Syracuse|
|2||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Clemson|
|6||Thursday, 8, ACCN||Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||No. 25 Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||No. 18 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Duke|
|30||Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCN||Home||No. 5 N.C. State|
|3||Thursday, 8, RSN||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Home||Miami|
|10||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||Sunday, 1, ACCNX||Road||Virginia Tech|
|17||Thursday, 6, RSN||Home||No. 10 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||No. 17 Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||Duke|
ACCN — ACC Network; RSN — regional sports networks; X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y —Goombay Splash; Z — Maggie Dixon Classic
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications