By R.L. Bynum
During their sizzling start to the season, North Carolina’s women have faced little-to-no adversity. Black Friday presented something they hadn’t seen in the first four games: Trailing in a game.
That happened early and in the third quarter but the Tar Heels showed resiliency and battled well down the stretch in a 72–59 victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Friday afternoon at the Goombay Splash in the tiny Gateway Christian Academy gym in Bimini, Bahamas.
“Our team came out ready to play,” said sophomore wing Alyssa Ustby, who scored a career-high 23 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for yet another double-double. “We kind of met our match in terms of intensity. VCU is very up-pace, up-tempo and I think that was a great challenge for us.”
Carolina plays its second and final game in the event at noon Saturday (Flo Sports) against Washington (2–2), which lost to VCU (3–2) on Thursday in Bimini 60–47.
“What a group. You’ve got to win lots of different ways in a season of this length,” said Coach Courtney Banghart, whose team is 5–0 for a third consecutive season but with three of them away from home for the first time since 2004. “We had to win a really gritty one. We didn’t shoot the ball very well. We didn’t play our best at all spots and they were very physical.”
UNC blew out their first four opponents by an average of 44.8 points, but that wasn’t going to happen against a tough Rams team who won the Atlantic 10 Conference last season. UNC made only 2 of 13 3-point attempts and looked disjointed on offense at times but found a way to get the job done.
Carolina took control in the second half using four guards and a wing, with Alyssa Ustby playing the five spot during a key stretch of the second half.
“You know, we just were having trouble with their ball screens,” Banghart said. “We weren’t sharp enough at the point of the screen. And, so, we figured if we went small, we could switch them all. And Alyssa gives us that flexibility, which is great. Also, the game was really physical. They weren’t calling the post game at all. So it was not to our advantage, to even battle in there. So, it worked. Like I said, there’s a first time for everything.”
Deja Kelly scored 15, Eva Hodgson had a season-high 14 points and Carlie Littlefield pitched in 10. UNC battled foul trouble with Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Hodgson and Malu Tshitenge all finishing with three fouls.
It was another sensational game for Ustby.
“The kid is just is so fun to coach because look how hard she plays,” Banghart said of Ustby. “You don’t have to call a lot of stuff for her. You just know that she’s gonna find a way when it matters. She’s getting much more aggressive on the catch, which helps us, and also the fact that she can play 39 minutes in a game like that is a testament of her conditioning.”
Banghart said that Ustby was more of a pass-first player during her freshman year and relied on her athleticism to be successful, but says she’s “getting it” in the early part of her sophomore season.
“Now, she’s much-more skilled with a much-better understanding of what’s going on,” Banghart said. “She’s not a finished product. We have to continue to grow her ball-handling and vision and things like that.”
Ustby met the challenge of guarding and trying to score against a bigger player.
“It wasn’t that difficult for me,” said the 6–1 Ustby. “I was really excited for the challenge to play against somebody who was bigger in size.”
Ustby said the small lineup made it easier on the defensive end.
“It was so loud in that gym and it was very hard to communicate,” Ustby said. “So, I think our team made a great adjustment and played small so we were able to switch a lot of positions.”
It took terrific play on the defensive end by UNC’s smaller players to make it work.
“We got in gaps, switched around and flied around on defense. I think even though we were a little under-sized, we used our speed to our advantage,” said the 5–9 Littlefield.
What didn’t Ustby do for the Tar Heels against VCU? Whether it was driving to the hoop, making a jumper, setting screens or hitting the boards, she did it all with a good all-around game that has become so familiar to Carolina fans.
“I just came out ready to play my usual game, just being aggressive, being there for my teammates, trying my best to be in gaps and help defense and just trying to be everywhere to make an impact from all aspects of the game,” Ustby said. “Any of those little things that I can do, I’m going to do them every game.”
UNC made only two of its first 10 shots and trailed 7–4 3:20 into the game. But the Tar Heels used a 10–2 run to take a 14-7 lead into the second quarter. During that run, their tough defense forced VCU to miss long shots at the end of the shot clock twice.
The Tar Heels led by as many as 10 points in the second quarter but VCU pulled within three on a Janika Griffith-Wallace 3-pointer with 1:38 left. Ustby scored five of her 13 first-half points after that, though, as UNC led 34–28 at halftime, shooting 37% from the floor.
“We made a few tactical adjustments, as you saw, with how we defended ball screens,” Banghart said. “That was part of it, and on the offensive end, we just said we got to win the paint. We were just settling for shots that weren’t falling today. We didn’t shoot the ball very well. So, we had to kind of put our hard hats on.”
VCU retook the lead at 39–38 with 6:14 left in the third quarter with an 11–2 run, sparked by two 3-pointers and a three-point play from graduate-student guard Taya Robinson, who led the Rams with 18 points.
“I think the biggest thing that helped us kind of navigate the ups and downs of that game was huddling up after a foul call or a free throw,” Ustby said. “In those huddles, we all encouraged each other, like, ‘we’ve got this. They are on a run right now but we’re good.’ It was kind of maintaining our cool throughout the game. You have to be calm when the other team makes a run.”
The Tar Heels took a 50–45 lead into the final quarter after finishing the third with a 10–4 run, led by a baseline drive and a 3-pointer by Hodgson. A Littlefield drive to start the fourth quarter made it 52–45.
UNC took a 14-point lead at 65–51 with 3:54 remaining on a 10–2 run, led by six Ustby points.
“It was one of those games where we couldn’t get in a rhythm, so it really became a collective will and just sticking with it,” Banghart said. “An enormous amount of trust was shown today and for that, I’m really proud of them.”
Carolina shot 42% from the floor compared to 35% for VCU and 84% from the free-throw line compared to 50% for the Rams.
UNC 72, VCU 59
|9||92–47 win, 1–0||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||89–33 win, 2–0||Road||Charlotte|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|26||72–59, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||Saturday, noon, Flo Sports||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
|1||X-Wednesday, 9, BTN||Road||Y — 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. 24 Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||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 —Goombay Splash; Y — ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications