By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — In case it wasn’t already obvious, North Carolina’s unbeaten women showed again in a one-sided win over Clemson that they are really good.
The No. 24 Tar Heels led by 30 points in the third quarter before winning 81–62 Sunday at Carmichael Arena behind Deja Kelly’s career-high 31 points. They now get a chance to prove how good they are when they visit No. 5 N.C. State on Thursday night. That will give UNC (13–0, 3–0 ACC) their toughest test of the season and their first ranked opponent.
Both teams will be coming off of wins over the Tigers. The Wolfpack won 79–52 at Clemson last Thursday and have won back-to-back games since losing at home Dec. 16 in overtime to No. 13 Georgia 82–80.
“There were a lot of things our guys did right,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of the win. “We forced more turnovers than they made baskets, so that’s obviously a statistic that people like. But I also really think when you get 18 steals and 18 offensive rebounds, it shows a level of grit and preparedness and accountability. That kind of speaks for itself.”
Carolina extended its unbeaten streak to 13, one shy of Tar Heels’ 14–0 start to the 2010–11 season. UNC is one of three remaining unbeaten teams in the country along with Colorado (11–0) and Arizona (10–0), who both play next Friday. Carolina is one of five teams unbeaten in ACC play and tied for the league lead with State (12–2, 3–0) and Virginia Tech (11–3, 3–0).
As on many nights, sophomore guard Deja Kelly gave the Tar Heels offense when they were needed it most, scoring seven points in the decisive 19–2 second-quarter run after the Tigers had cut the lead to four.
With a career-high five 3-pointers, Kelly topped her previous career-high of 25 points in her homecoming game against Texas Christian in November. She also dished out a season-high-tying four assists and pulled down four rebounds.
Once Kelly got hot from the perimeter, it made it tougher for Clemson to defend UNC. Banghart said that Kelly’s vision keeps getting better and she is much better this season with the ball in her hands.
“I think it was Deja’s best game as a Tar Heel and she’s had a handful of them,” Banghart said. “I thought she was able to get other people great looks because they were focusing so much on Deja, and that forced them to kind of spread out a little bit and then she was able to attack.”
How important was she on both ends of the court? When Kelly was on the bench for nearly three minutes midway through the second half, the Tigers outscored UNC 16–4 and cut the lead to 14 at one point. Kelly scored five points within two minutes of returning to the game.
“I started off facilitating because of how they were guarding me and then once they kind of backed off a little bit, then I was able to knock some shots down,” Kelly said. “Once I started shooting and getting hot, I think it opened it up for a lot of people and they started knocking them down as well.”
Kennedy Todd-Williams (14 points, eight rebounds, three assists and five steals) and Alyssa Ustby (10 points, five rebounds, four assists and six steals) were also big impact players on both ends of the court.
“I think defense is definitely the key to the game, I think especially with this team,” said Todd-Williams, who is consistently the team’s best defender. “We’re very long. It is easy for us to get easy steals or easy run-outs. Just locking in defensively will help our offense.”
Carolina’s defense was so disruptive that Clemson didn’t have more field goals than turnovers until Amari Robinson’s layup at the end of the third quarter gave them 19 field goals against 18 turnovers. The final total, though, was 25 turnovers and 24 field goals.
“We were just in help side [defense], just all playing together,” said Todd-Williams, who added that the Tar Heels were individually defending well. “[We were] playing the way we know how to play on defense, sticking to what we do. And I think it opened up a lot of opportunities for us to get steals and run-outs. So that’s what we did. We got our hands on a lot of things. So, I’m proud.”
It got chippy at times with Todd-Williams and Clemson’s Kiara Lewis both getting technical fouls early in the game after a confrontation. After one of Lewis’ shoes came off, Todd-Williams threw it, then Lewis appeared to shove Todd-Williams in the back with her knee.
The Tigers’ Eno Inyang and UNC’s Destiny Adams each got technical fouls in the third quarter after their arms got tangled up trying to get a rebound and they exchanged words.
“It can kind of shake up the game,” Todd-Williams said of the two sequences. “But I think it just goes to show you how tough we are. Obviously, we’re not just going to back down from anything. We understand to keep our composure throughout the whole game, and I think we did that. We didn’t let those incidents turn into something else.”
Center Anya Poole had a game-high 13 rebounds, with Eva Hodgson pitching in 10 points.
Banghart knows the challenge that is coming on Wednesday in Raleigh.
“Their experience is probably the frontline,” Banghart said of N.C. State. “We know that. They’ve got a lot of experience. They’ve been in big games. They’ve had a lot of success as a unit. And so, if we take a four-year career, they’re ahead. But luckily, we’re just going to focus on the game that gets played on Thursday night.”
Carolina will also deal with a height disparity against the Pack.
“We are not that big at the guard position, but we’re fast and quick,” said Kelly, who had the second-highest scoring game in the ACC this season, only behind a 34-point game for Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley against Florida State. “And I think our defense has been pretty good to where we can really lock in on that and we all know that we can score. But I think if we really lock in defensively, I think we’ll be fine.”
Two Ustby transition layups and one by Todd-Williams on a 3-point play in the first 73 seconds had the Heels off and running. Clemson called a time out after Carlie Littlefield’s 3-pointer made it 12–0 after just over three minutes.
The Tigers responded with a 7–0 run, but they had four field goals and six turnovers and trailed 22–13 after one quarter. Clemson scored the first five points of the second quarter to cut its deficit to four before that 19–2 run pushed UNC’s lead to 46–24 by halftime.
Clemson scored the last seven points of the third quarter to outscore UNC 23–22 in the quarter and took a 68–47 deficit into the fourth quarter. The Tigers also outscored UNC in the final quarter 15–13.
“They started to kind of punish us a little bit in the interior and we got a little bit too flat,” Banghart said. “Part of it is the ebb and flow of the game. I just tried to get my guys to focus on one solid possession at a time and then it kind of washes itself out through the course of the game.”
Delicia Washington came off the bench to lead Clemson (6–8, 0–3) with 16 points in 21 minutes.
Reserve UNC center Malu Tshitenge missed her second consecutive game under COVID-19 protocols.
No. 24 UNC 81, Clemson 62
UNC season statistics
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|
|January (1–0, 1–0 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||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|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications