By R.L. Bynum
RALEIGH — It wasn’t the first cold shooting start for No. 19 North Carolina this season. But it was the first time that an opponent seized on the opportunity to deliver an early knockout blow.
A seasoned, experienced opponent will make you pay and No. 5 N.C. State (13–2, 4–0 ACC) cashed in early on its way to an easy 72–45 victory Thursday at Reynolds Coliseum to end UNC’s unbeaten streak at 13.
Coach Courtney Banghart told her Tar Heels (13–1, 3–1) that she didn’t recognize them. They had to respond to the most adversity on the court that they’ve faced all season and came up empty.
“We have to learn from it, face some adversity and get better because that’s just not a team I’ve seen in 89 days,” said Banghart, whose team was dealt a huge blow before the season when it lost freshman Teonni Key to a season-ending knee injury.
“This is adversity. And how they respond to that is going to be really important,” Banghart said. “And I have full faith and trust that they’re going to respond to it, and the way they respond to all the other adversity that we’ve had, be it injury or other such things.”
The Tar Heels missed their first five shots and fell behind by 12 points before Deja Kelly scored their first points five minutes into the game. It was a daunting, uphill battle from there.
“I think they were nervous,” Banghart said. “I think it was just that when the going got tough, we backed down a little bit. We haven’t done that before.”
Carolina got few second shots and by the time they found much offensive rhythm, it was too late.
“We didn’t start strong, with pace and purpose,” said Banghart when asked about the slow start. “And they’ll have to answer that question with you and have to answer with me about why their pace and purpose wasn’t as sharp as we had been accustomed to doing it — on either end.”
Kelly (12 points) and Alyssa Ustby (12 points and 12 rebounds) were UNC’s only consistent scoring threats on the night and they combined to go 11 of 34 from the floor. The rest of the team made only four of 31 field-goal attempts.
“Tonight wasn’t our best performance,” said Ustby, who earned her seventh double-double of the season and ninth of her career. “N.C. State came out in the first quarter and threw a punch. We just weren’t as sharp as we needed to be in the first quarter. We kind of picked it up as the game went on. But really having the tone set in that first quarter made it difficult for us.”
After trailing by more than five points only once in the first 13 games (15 points in the come-from-behind win at Boston College), the Tar Heels trailed by as many as 29 points. Before Thursday, UNC’s fewest points in a game came in a 58–37 victory over Washington. It was the lowest total since scoring a 62–44 loss to Duke in March 2019.
“I knew that it was going to be a dogfight,” Kelly said. “I knew that they’re a really good team. So, I wasn’t really surprised at how hard they were playing, how connected they were playing. I knew that in order for us to compete with them that we had to be connected as well and I don’t think we were, offensively or defensively.”
N.C. State center Elissa Cunane no doubt didn’t miss dealing with Janelle Bailey for the first time after six previous career games against Carolina. After averaging 12.7 points against Bailey, she scored nine in the first seven minutes and finished with 19 points in 30 minutes. She sat out the last 7:26 of the game.
“We’re younger, so we’re not quite as physical as we will be and we continue to be,” Banghart said. “She’s got great footwork. She’s got great size. She gets a lot of options in the offense. And, so, that makes her a hard guard.”
Cunane blocked Anya Poole’s first attempt and then scored on her at the other end. Three-pointers by Jakia Brown-Turner and Raina Perez and an inside bucket by Cunane made it 10–0 4:40 into the game.
By the end of the first quarter, Cunane had more points than Carolina, and State owned a comfortable 24–7 lead.
After Cunane had her way inside with Poole, Banghart inserted sophomore Alexandra Zelaya late in the first quarter.
“It wasn’t a matter that Anya didn’t play well,” Banghart said of the change. “No one gets to raise their hand and say I played poorly alone. They get to do that together.”
Zelaya came out midway through the second quarter when she took an inadvertent elbow to the forehead from State’s Camille Hobby. Zelaya got stitches to her left forehead and returned to the game early in the fourth quarter.
The Wolfpack hurt Carolina from the perimeter as well. State’s 11 3-pointers were the most against UNC this season, bettering the nine VCU made on Nov. 26. Cunane led in that category s well with three.
Carolina has been a good rebounding team all season but didn’t show it against State, losing the battle of the boards 53–40. The Pack’s total easily topped the most previous rebounds by an opponent this season of 44 by Boston College.
“We weren’t quick enough to the glass,” Banghart said. “You watch the film and they’re gonna see that they shot one up and we just turned our heads instead of blocking out. The rebounding effort wasn’t good enough, that’s all I can say.”
Kelly said that the guards didn’t help in that regard.
“I think we were so locked in on boxing out Cunane, that us guards kind of got caught ball-watching and not helping rebound, which led to put-back buckets for them,” Kelly said.
Banghart didn’t sound like she was going to let her team forget this game anytime soon.
“You definitely don’t throw it out,” Banghart said. “You make them sit in it a little bit. And then you utilize film and you critique your practice accordingly so that they’re learning what they need to do, right? Because it’s not usually a lack of effort with this group. There was a lack of purpose and that has to be explained so that we can better help them moving forward.”
It was a rough floor game for the Tar Heels with a season-low four assists (the previous low was six against TCU). Many times this season, their defense forced opponents to get more turnovers than field goals. UNC suffered that fate Thursday with 15 field goals and 17 turnovers.
Carolina shot a season-worst 23.1% from the floor (the previous worst was 33.9% against Washington).
“There’s a lot we can learn,” Kelly said. “This was probably the best test we got all season and I think that this is kind of our first test of adversity. For us to really just lock in and move on and learn from this game, I think it’s really important for us, and to stay connected like we have been all throughout the beginning of the season defensively and offensively.”
Ustby had two 3-pointers all season before Thursday but made two before picking up her third foul late in the first half. State led 40–23 at halftime. The Tar Heels came no closer than 17 in the third quarter and trailed 62–38 heading into the final quarter.
Carolina went 1 of 16 from the floor in the fourth quarter, with the last UNC field goal coming from Ustby with 7:36 left.
Banghart said it will be a time for the entire team to reflect.
“If you don’t point inward on this one that’s on you, and that includes me,” Banghart said. “It’s never easy in the moment.
The Tar Heels are back at Carmichael at 6 p.m. Sunday (ACC Network) to face Virginia Tech (11–3, 3–0). It will be the Hokies’ first game since winning 66–53 at Wake Forest last Sunday after their Thursday home game with Virginia was postponed because of COVID-19 issues in the Cavaliers’ program.
UNC and Virginia Tech played three times last season, with the Hokies winning the first two games 66–54 in Chapel Hill and 73–60 at Tech before the Tar Heels won 68–63 on Feb. 28 at Blacksburg, Va.
No. 5 N.C. State 72,
No. 19 UNC 45
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|
(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
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, |
12–0, 2–0 ACC
(1–1, 1–1 ACC)
|2||81–62 win, |
13–0, 3–0 ACC
|6||72–45 loss, |
13–1, 3–1 ACC
|Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||No. 16 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||No. 17 Duke|
|30||Sunday, noon or 4, 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. 17 Duke|
RSN — regional sports networks; X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge