UNC women fight back from 11-point deficit but fall short at Notre Dame

By R.L. Bynum

Against a tough ACC team on the road, No. 21 North Carolina showed resiliency by not wilting when No. 20 Notre Dame surged to an 11-point third-quarter lead.

The Tar Heels rallied back to make it close after never trailing in the first half, but Dara Mabry was too much for them in a 70–65 Notre Dame victory Sunday in South Bend, Ind.

Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said that her players showed again that they are a bunch of fighters in the way they responded to that deficit. She pointed to the play of Deja Kelly, who collected 22 points and five assists, and Alyssa Ustby, who had 15 points, six rebounds and two assists.

“When you look at them and you look at people like Lys and Deja, you see it in their eyes,” Banghart said. “It doesn’t matter; we’re going. You’ve got to start with who you are and who we are is a team that’s full of toughness, full of grit and really connected. So, that gives you a chance every night.”

Kelly wasn’t going to let Carolina (14–2, 4–2 ACC) go down with a fight, scoring 11 fourth-quarter points to top 20 points for the fifth time this season and the third time in the last four games.

Her 3-pointer with 5:29 left cut UNC’s deficit to 61–58. But by the time she ended a nearly 4½-minute Tar Heels scoring drought with another 3, the Irish led 68–61 and UNC could come no closer than five points after that.

“They went on their run,” Kelly said of Notre Dame’s 12–0 run early in the second half. “So, we told ourselves that it was our turn for our run. I think we got a little more aggressive defensively. We were finally starting to be more aggressive on offense, started hitting some shots. So that’s kind of how we fought back.”

The Tar Heels committed five of their 18 turnovers during that damaging Irish run. UNC responded with a 9–0 run to trim the deficit to 50–48 on a Kelly 3-pointer with 2:07 left in the third quarter but never retook the lead. The Irish scored the last four points of the third period and led 54–48 after forcing six UNC turnovers and not turning it over once in the third quarter.

Four of UNC’s starters had three fouls early in the fourth quarter, with Ustby picking up her fourth with 5:11 left and Kelly getting her fourth in the last minute. That created more challenges for the Tar Heels, who were playing without top reserve guard Eva Hodgson, who is in COVID-19 protocols and didn’t make the trip. She is third on the team in scoring at 11.2 points per game.

“Obviously, not having Eva forced us to play a little bit different way,” Banghart said. “We weren’t able to generate as many turnovers as we typically do because we had to conserve both bodies and fouls and play more zone. So we got a good opportunity to get our zone better, which will help us down the line.”

It was a battle of two teams that play suffocating defense, leading both to try to get into transition as much as possible. Notre Dame (13–3, 4–1) did a better job getting out in transition and outscored UNC 22–9 in points off turnovers.

UNC had more turnovers in a pair of nonconference games (18 against N.C. A&T and 19 against Alabama State) but top-level ACC teams are going to take advantage, just as No. 4 N.C. State did when it forced 17 turnovers.

“We’re not doing a good job of recognizing two-on-ones, even in quarter court,” Banghart said. “Where is one defender guarding two with the pass? We’re getting a little bit too deep before making our pass, so we’re still learning how to read the secondary defender as a unit.”

There were times when Carolina created good shots with quick passes. But too many other times, the Tar Heels got stagnant, and that made good shots tough to find.

“When we got the ball into the high post, we didn’t move as well at times. So, really, it came down to movement,” Banghart. “And then, defensively, same thing, we got stuck on the weak side and stuck in mud a little bit. So, we can play better. That was an opportunity that we let slip by.”

Carlie Littlefield broke out of her shooting slump with three 3-pointers and nine points in a season-high 38 minutes.

Without Hodgson, it was important for Carlie Littlefield to break out of her shooting slump. After making only 2 of her previous 25 3-point attempts coming into the game, she was 3 of 7 from 3-point range and scored nine points while dishing out five assists in a season-high 38 minutes.

“We haven’t seen a bunch of zone,” Banghart said. “I think what hurts you in zone is you need guys that are willing to be aggressive from the perimeter. Carlie was really gun-shy in the first half. That hurts you and Eva is obviously very good at spacing out the defense in that way.”

Kennedy Todd-Williams picked up most of the scoring slack left with Hodgson out, scoring seven of her 13 points in the opening minutes. She finished with five rebounds and four assists.

“Kennedy was aggressive offensively, which was a good step for her,” Banghart said.

UNC’s Kennedy Todd-Williams scored seven of her 13 points in the opening minutes on Sunday.

Carolina’s big problem on defense all afternoon was closing out Mabry on the perimeter. She led Notre Dame with 24 points and six 3-pointers, both season-highs. Guards Sonia Citron (12 points and 10 rebounds) and Maya Dodson (10 points and 11 rebounds) both put up double-doubles.

The Tar Heels low-post defense was good at times, though, with Ustby, Anya Poole and Alexandra Zelaya mostly holding Notre Dame’s post players in check. Maddy Westbeld, the Irish’s leading scorer on the season, scored 11, Maya Dodson 10 and Sam Brunelle three.

“They’re great athletes, great players,” Ustby said. “In our zone, we really took away looks that they are used to getting. We forced him to make shots other ways.”

The Irish still outscored UNC 33–22 inside.

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“One of our big keys was to get the ball to the high post,” Ustby said. “That’s, in my opinion, almost like a facilitator right there and I didn’t do my job as well as I usually do, which is being patient in the high post and letting our shooters get to corners. So that was a big adjustment we were trying to make throughout the game.”

Poole pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds.

A Todd-Williams 3-pointer and a transition layup gave UNC a quick 5–0 lead before Notre Dame even got a shot off. A Todd-Williams layup off a fabulous Kelly bounce pass made it 9–2.

The Irish went without a field goal for the last four minutes of the first quarter. Kelly converted a four-point play in the final second as UNC took a 22–15 lead into the second quarter.

Notre Dame converted two consecutive steals into layups to cut UNC’s lead to 30–28 with 4:07 left in the first half. Thirty seconds later, Olivia Miles, the Irish’s second-leading scorer heading into the game at 12.8 per game, picked up her third foul on a moving screen. She scored seven.

UNC led by as many as nine points in the first half before taking a 34–33 halftime edge after going scoreless for the last 2:12 of the first half.

The Tar Heels return home at 6 p.m. Thursday to face Virginia (ESPN3). The Cavaliers (3–10, 0–3) have lost four consecutive games and will play for the first time since losing at home to No. 4 N.C. State 66–43 on Jan. 13. Their scheduled Sunday game with Virginia Tech was postponed because of the wintry weather. Virginia’s only wins have come against Fullerton (60–48), William & Mary (60–44) and George Washington (62–43), who all have losing records.

No. 20 Notre Dame 70,
No. 21 North Carolina 65

ACC standings

UNC season statistics

DateScore, record/
day, time, TV
LocationOpponent
(current ranking)
November (6–0)
992–47 win, 1–0HomeN.C. A&T
1489–33 win, 2–0RoadCharlotte
1789–44 win, 3–0HomeAppalachian State
2179–46 win, 4–0RoadTCU
2672–59 win, 5–0Bimini, BahamasX — VCU
2758–37 win, 6–0Bimini, BahamasX — Washington
December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)
182–76 win, 7–0RoadY — Minnesota
593–47 win, 8–0HomeJames Madison
12107–46 win, 9–0HomeUNC Asheville
15Game canceledHomeJacksonville
1976–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACCRoadBoston College
2183–47 win, 11–0HomeAlabama State
3079–43 win, 12–0, 2–0 ACCHomeSyracuse
January (2–2, 2–2 ACC)
281–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACCHomeClemson
672–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1 ACCRoadNo. 4 N.C. State
971–46 win, 14–1, 4–1 ACCHomeVirginia Tech
1670–65 loss, 14–2, 4–2 ACCRoadNo. 20 Notre Dame
20Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomeVirginia
23Sunday, noon, ACCNRoadNo. 15 Georgia Tech
27Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadNo. 16 Duke
30Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCNHomeNo. 4 N.C. State
February
3Thursday, 8, RSNRoadWake Forest
6Sunday, noon, ACCNHomeMiami
10Thursday, 6, ACCNXHomePittsburgh
13Sunday, 1, ACCNXRoadVirginia Tech
17Thursday, 6, RSNHomeNo. 3 Louisville
20Sunday, noon, RSNRoadFlorida State
24Thursday, 7, ACCNXRoadVirginia
27Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCNHomeNo. 16 Duke
March
2–
6
ACC TournamentGreensboro
ACCNX — ACC Network Extra (ESPN3); ACCN — ACC Network; RSN — regional sports networks;
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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