By R.L. Bynum
If the unbeaten No. 24 North Carolina women’s basketball team was going to face a challenge, it wasn’t likely to come from a Syracuse team with only seven available players.
Once the Tar Heels got rolling, there was little Syracuse could do. They moved to 12–0 and 2–0 in the ACC with a 79–43 victory Thursday afternoon at Carmichael Arena.
UNC, No. 18 in the coaches poll, is one of three remaining unbeaten teams among 356 in the country and is off to the best start since winning its first 14 games in the 2010–11 season. After unranked Missouri upset No. 1 South Carolina on Thursday, UNC, Colorado (11–0) and Arizona (10–0) are the only unbeaten teams.
Leading the way for the Tar Heels were Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby.
“I think they showed the growth they have made as college players and college stars in how they impacted the game, without necessarily being totally in rhythm offensively,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of the two sophomores. “Didn’t shoot very well, which I guess is sometimes to be expected after the break. So, as I just told them in there, we had to be greedy because we weren’t pretty. But we’re going to keep working to be both greedy and pretty.”
UNC practiced only three times between Christmas Day and the game, and had only seven players some of those days while waiting on COVID-19 test results. That probably contributed to the not-so-pretty aspects of the game with sloppiness on offense and one of the Tar Heels’ worst 3-point-shooting games of the season (4 of 25).
“It definitely had its challenges, but I think we persevered through that,” said Ustby, who put up her sixth double-double in 12 games with 12 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high six assists. “And we took advantage of those three practices in the time that we had together and were able to just kind of cultivate that win.”
The Orange roster was limited because four players, including two starters, didn’t make the trip. Some, but not all, were in COVID-19 protocols.
Carolina played without reserve center Malu Tshitenge because Banghart said that they wanted to be careful coming out of the break with the COVID protocols.
“We know there might be some games where we have seven and our seven are going to give it all that we have. So we didn’t want to let that distract us from our mission,” Banghart said of the practices with only a few players.
It was an all-around team effort with balanced scoring, solid defense and dominant rebounding. As fatigue likely set it for Syracuse (8–5, 1–2 ACC), UNC outscored the Orange 42–18 in the second half.
Sophomore center Anya Poole (11 points, 10 rebounds) also had a double-double as five players scored in double figures. Guard Kelly had 12 points, five rebounds and a team-high two blocks, with graduate guard Eva Hodgson scoring 11 and sophomore Kennedy Todd-Williams 10.
“I kind of noticed during warm-ups that they only had seven players,” Ustby said. “But we’ve seen this before with other teams where maybe guards are out on the court and all the post players are in the locker room doing something with their coach. So, none of us were getting too excited, if you will, that they’re missing quite a few players. But we didn’t know until probably five to 10 minutes before the game started.”
Even without Tshitenge, the Tar Heels took advantage of a significant height advantage to hold an eye-popping 63–37 edge under the boards while rebounding nearly half of their misses.
UNC got good play off the bench as nine of 10 players scored. Banghart singled out Destiny Adams (nine points, seven rebounds), Alexandra Zelaya (six points, six rebounds) and Hodgson.
“The bench provided energy. Both Des and Zelaya kind of stand out in that regard,” Banghart said. “Eva, if there were four starting spots at the guard spots, she’d be one of them. It’s a team that we rely on our starters to play well and our reserves are ready to be helpful if they need to be, and it was that sort of game today.”
A 3-pointer by Syracuse’s Chrislyn Carr in the opening minute marked the first time UNC has trailed in a home game this season. Thanks to terrific defense from Todd-Williams, success didn’t come that often for her after that, and she finished with eight points.
After missing their first eight shots, the Tar Heels went on an 8–0 run, paced by four points from Poole, as the Orange missed its next eight shots. UNC went up 8–3 and never trailed again.
A 6–1 run to end the opening quarter gave UNC a 19–10 lead heading into the second quarter.
“You’ve got to move on to the next play,” Kelly said of overcoming poor shooting, particularly early in the game.
After taking a 37–25 halftime lead, the Tar Heels blew the game open by outscoring Syracuse 21–6 in the third quarter to take a 58–31 lead into the final quarter.
Kelly said UNC’s defense, like in many games this season, was important. UNC scored 19 fast-break points.
“We just kind of locked in what we’ve been doing throughout the start of the season, just being aggressive and high communication. And I think we just were a pretty good defensive team and that’s playing in the gaps. I know they’re really good offensive team. So communication was big for us on the defensive end.”
The Tar Heels are back at Carmichael on Sunday at 6 p.m. to face Clemson (ACC Network). The Tigers (6–7, 0–2) lost at home Thursday night to No. 5 N.C. State 79–52.
No. 24 UNC 79, Syracuse 43
day, time, TV
|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|
|21||79–46 win, 4–0||Road||TCU|
|26||72–59 win, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||58–37 win, 6–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
|December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)|
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, 12–0, 2–0 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|2||Sunday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Clemson|
|6||Thursday, 8, ACCN||Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||No. 17 Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||No. 16 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||No. 15 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. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||No. 15 Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications