By R.L. Bynum

This trip home to Texas went substantially better for sophomore Deja Kelly.

After North Carolina fell to Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tournament in her hometown of San Antonio last season, she made sure that Sunday’s trip to Fort Worth was memorable.

Kelly scored a career-high 25 points, including eight points in the first two minutes of the second half, as North Carolina easily knocked off host TCU 79–46 in the Maggie Dixon Classic.

After shooting 31.4% in the first half, the Tar Heels heated up with 48.5% second-half shooting and pulled away with a 20–2 run to start the fourth quarter.

Carolina hasn’t trailed in a game this season and has started the season 4–0 for a fourth consecutive season. It was the Tar Heels’ first non-conference road victory against a Power 5 conference team since beating Wisconsin on Dec. 1, 2016, but against a team picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Big 12.

“It was really exciting to come back home one more time and play in front of my family and friends,” Kelly, whose previous best scoring game was 22, which she scored during her freshman season against Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. “Our energy was just great and it was just a great atmosphere to play in. And I think that carried over into my performance. So, an all-around fun game.”

Kelly estimates that there were around 60 or 70 family and friends in the arena.

“It gave me more momentum because I heard them screaming, ‘Deja! Go Deja!’ That was good to hear my family’s voice because, obviously, they can’t all make it to Carolina,” said Kelly, who scored a trio of 3-pointers, including a four-point play and is the team’s leading scorer for the season at 17.3 points per game.

Coach Banghart recalled that Kelly committed to Carolina before she had even coached a game in Chapel Hill.

“She chose Carolina, and she must have been really proud of the team that she brought back home,” Banghart said.

Even with four one-sided victories, Kelly said that the Tar Heels need to stay focused.

“It’s still early and we still have a lot of work to do,” Kelly said. “But for us to get these big wins this early is really good for us to see how good we can be and see how good we can play together and how well we play together. And, obviously, it shows us what else we need to work on.”

Alyssa Ustby had another impressive game with 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for her fourth career double-double. Carlie Littlefield collected 14 points, four rebounds and three assists and fellow transfer guard Eva Hodgson scored 11, including back-to-back 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.

“I like where we’re at defensively, and we still have got some more things to add to our package,” Banghart said. “It’s a group that’s really connected. It’s one of the really unique and special parts of sports if you can get a group of people connected.”

The closest the Tar Heels have come to being challenged all season came when TCU trimmed the lead to 50–40 late in the third quarter with a 10–0 run. UNC went without a field goal for the last 5:15 of the quarter.

During that Horned Frogs run, Banghart challenged her team.

“I said to my guys, ‘this is the first time all year we’ve had to show real collective toughness,’ ” she told her players. “ ‘And let’s see what that looks like. And I don’t know what it’s gonna look like. We’ll have to see.’ And I sort of challenged them to decide, in that moment, how they were going to be, how they were going to show. And they put their foot on the gas.”

It was more like the Tar Heels shifted into overdrive with that 20–2 run. TCU (1–2) only scored six fourth-quarter points and its 30-game home non-conference win streak was history.

Banghart only used nine of her 11 players for the first time this season, with only seven playing more than two minutes. Playing fewer players didn’t mean that the Tar Heels on the court were tired in the fourth quarter, and it showed. The play got more physical and TCU simply wilted against Carolina’s defense.

Banghart said that her team’s conditioning, thanks to the sport performance team, made a difference in their fourth-quarter surge.

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“Obviously, with where our roster is right now, they’re working overdrive to ensure that not only are we recovering at the right rate, but we’re also ensuring that we’re continuing our ascent of fitness,” Banghart said. “To play the way we want to play, we have to be fit. I give a lot of credit to the whole group.”

Ustby, who gets a homecoming game when the Tar Heels visit her home state of Minnesota to face the Gophers on Dec. 1, played her usual all-around solid game. She is averaging a double-double with averages of 14.3 points and a team-leading 10.3 rebounds per game.

“I just want to have a mindset that I want to work hard and just outwork everybody on the other team,” Ustby said. “We all chipped in on the defensive end. We played together, so that’s really what got my personal game going, as well as working with our team and getting team stops.”

Littlefield’s 3-pointer in the first two minutes assured that UNC again wouldn’t trail in this game. The Tar Heels scored the game’s first five points, and a Kelly 3-pointer gave them an 8–2 lead despite getting as many turnovers as field goals (3) in the first 5:10.

After UNC took a 17–8 lead into the second quarter, TCU scored the first five points of the second quarter. They got no closer than four points and, after the Tar Heels led 29–22 at halftime, they went on a 10–2 run to start the second half. A Littlefield layup gave UNC a 45–28 lead with 6:05 left in the third quarter.

Carolina made a season-high 18 free throws with the team’s best shooting percentage of the season at the line of 78.3%. The Tar Heels outrebounded TCU 54–28, rebounding 46.5% of their misses.

The Tar Heels next head to Bimini, Bahamas, for a pair of games in the Goombay Splash that will air on Flo Sports. UNC meets VCU at 1 p.m. Friday and Washington at noon Saturday.

Both teams are 2–1. VCU, which won at home Sunday against Old Dominion 7148, lost its opener to Middle Tennessee 54–46. Washington (2–1) comes off a 61–53 home loss Saturday to No. 10 Louisville.

UNC 79, TCU 46

UNC season statistics

DateScore, record/Day, time, TVLocationOpponent
November
992–47 win, 1–0HomeN.C. A&T
1489–33 win, 2–0RoadCharlotte
1789–44 win, 3–0HomeAppalachian State
2179–46 win, 4–0RoadX — TCU
26Y-Friday, 1 p.m., Flo SportsBimini, BahamasY — VCU
27Y-Saturday, noon, Flo SportsBimini, BahamasY — 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, ACCNRoadNo. 5 N.C. State
9Sunday, 6, ACCNHomeNo. 25 Virginia Tech
16Sunday, 1, RSNRoadNotre Dame
20Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomeVirginia
23Sunday, noon, ACCNRoadNo. 18 Georgia Tech
27Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadDuke
30Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCNHomeNo. 5 N.C. State
February
3Thursday, 8, RSNRoadWake Forest
6Sunday, noon, ACCNHomeMiami
10Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomePittsburgh
13Sunday, 1, ACCNXRoadVirginia Tech
17Thursday, 6, RSNHomeNo. 10 Louisville
20Sunday, noon, RSNRoadNo. 17 Florida State
24Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadVirginia
27Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCNHomeDuke
March
2–
6
ACC TournamentGreensboro

Photo by Ellman Photography

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