By R.L. Bynum
DURHAM — Any questions from the AP poll voters who didn’t think North Carolina’s women deserved to be ranked?
The Tar Heels, who fell out of the AP Top 25 after seven consecutive ranked weeks, blew past No. 21 Duke in the second quarter and rolled to a 78–62 victory Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium to snap a five-game losing streak to their rivals.
“It was a great environment for a college basketball game,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “The Duke-Carolina rivalry means a lot to a lot of people, especially those involved in it, and so it was great to bring home a win on the road.”
It was UNC’s fourth win over a ranked team under Banghart, but the first on the road. It was only the Heels’ second win over Duke since sweeping the regular-season meetings in 2013–14 (13 meetings ago) and tied the all-time series at 51 wins each.
Carolina (16–3, 6–2 ACC), No. 22 in the coaches poll, played one of its more impressive offensive games of the season with a season-low five turnovers (previous low was 8 against UNC Asheville and the low in ACC play was 12 against Virginia Tech.)
“This group has put a lot of time in to keep getting better and some of the lessons along the way can be a little bit painful,” said Banghart, whose team faces No. 3 N.C. State at Carmichael Arena on Sunday. “And we thought against Georgia Tech, we just weren’t good enough on the offensive end. We were really lackluster and a little bit lack of purpose and lack of pace. We really worked on offense the last few days and I couldn’t be prouder of them. It’s really fun to be their coach tonight.”
It was the first win at Cameron since UNC upset No. 3 Duke 89–78 on Feb. 10, 2014, and only the second win in Durham since winning 93–76 on Feb. 4, 2008.
Twice this season, UNC fell behind early against ranked teams (first N.C. State and then Georgia Tech) and never recovered. After reacting to what the opponent was doing in those games, the Tar Heels flipped that dynamic in Durham.
“Our guys did a really great job throwing a punch,” Banghart said. “Just the aggressiveness, the assertiveness that this young team needs, they were able to do. And I think they saw now what that looks like. They felt it. And then we don’t have to recreate it. We can just press rewind and play.”
That Carolina punch in the first half was all about pushing the pace.
“Coach said before the game, ‘throw the first punch,’ ” said Alyssa Ustby (top photo), who scored 11 of her game-high 20 points in the first half. “We took that to heart. We looked at our five starters like, ‘we start the game off; we start the tempo,’ and that’s what we did. We set the game on a trajectory that we were in control of every possession, offensively and defensively. We were being active, not reactive. We just trusted one another, and that’s what it takes to win a big ballgame like this.”
The Tar Heels showed that they can flourish even when Deja Kelly, their leading scorer on the season, is having a bad shooting night (2 of 15).
Two big reasons why were the huge games from Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams (12 of her career-high-tying 15 points in the first half), who both had three steals. Reserve center Alexandra Zelaya tied her career-high with seven points in a season-high 21 minutes.
Duke (13–5, 4–4), playing without Coach Kara Lawson because of COVID-19 protocols, hopelessly played catch-up in the second half under the direction of assistant coach Winston Gandy.
“One of those things that North Carolina does well is get out in transition,” said Gandy, who found out Thursday morning that Lawson wouldn’t be able to coach the game. “When you turn the ball over, it’s very hard to set the defense. I thought we were able to do a good job in the half court, but the live-ball turnovers will get you every time.”
It all started on the defensive end, led by Todd-Williams, as UNC scored 27 points off of 18 Duke turnovers and outscored the Blue Devils 19–12 in fast-break points.
“I think we came in locked in and everybody knew what we needed to do,” Todd-Williams said. “So, everybody was on the same game plan, and we came out and did that. And that’s all that matters.”
Banghart said it came down to every player being accountable on defense and communicating.
“They were really talking to each other well and playing at the right angles,” Banghart said. “When they’re active with their hands and feet, we can use our quickness, and size becomes less of an issue. So, it was a total buy-in, both in terms of the scout as well as the effort.”
Todd-Williams scored in double figures for the fourth consecutive game and is asserting herself on offense more to go with her usual stellar play on the defensive end.
“Kennedy’s emergence on the offensive end is why we’re playing so well,” Banghart said. “She’s a really hard matchup because she’s long, she can really shoot it. She’s got a variety of finishes with her length, and she has good range. As she has added herself into the scoring column, we’re better. All we talk about this game is just to get better and better and better both individually and collectively. And Toddy is a perfect example of that.”
Ustby’s big night came after combining for 13 points in the previous two games.
“Alyssa kind of went through a little bit of a slide, but she is back,” Banghart said.
How did UNC go from a blowout loss and 27.3% shooting against Georgia Tech to shooting 45.1% against Duke and winning easily?
Not having to deal with the Jackets’ height and length was one factor. But Banghart said she played a role in the struggles against the Jackets by letting her team just play instead of giving them direction. Against Duke, she told them the actions they needed to be effective.
“We asserted a little bit more leadership inside the lines on each possession,” Banghart said. “So, we got kind of a first look and a second look that were more designed. That led to a little more confidence. We’re just a little too young to just play. I learned a lot by watching those games.”
Carolina led 19–18 after one quarter, thanks to Carlie Littlefield’s four-point play with five seconds left.
“Even with that, we still came out of that quarter with just a one-point difference,” Gandy said. “You hate to foul, but we had three more quarters. I would argue that one play didn’t change the outcome of the game. I thought we battled back. We had a lot of possessions and plays that you could point to as being what went wrong.”
The Tar Heels built on that by scoring the first nine points of the second quarter. A steal and layup by Ustby, who scored seven points in the first quarter, and a Todd-Williams jumper pushed UNC’s lead to 28–18 with 5:59 left in the first half.
After Kelly missed her first five shots, she hit a pair of jumpers, including a 3-pointer. Jumpers by Eva Hodgson, Ustby and Todd-Williams made it 39–20 with 3:13 left.
Three Duke starters were on the bench with two fouls for much of a 15–2 Carolina run and, by halftime, a fourth starter had two fouls.
“With foul trouble, you get into your rotations and your bench early,” Gandy said. “You would love to have your set rotation, but when you pick up fouls, it puts a squeeze on everybody and becomes a committee effort. You try to protect players as much as you can so they don’t lose the aggressiveness that you want them to play with.”
The second quarter was UNC’s second time shooting at least 70% in a quarter, topping the 71.4% against UNC Asheville. The Tar Heels’ 54.3% shooting in the first half was their best half of the season, topping 46.4 against Virginia Tech.
Carolina outscored Duke 28–8 in the second quarter to lead 47–26 at halftime on Todd-Williams’ long 2-pointer at the buzzer. UNC forced 11 first-half Duke turnovers and only committed two, defending well on pick and rolls.
“I thought our defense was so disruptive that we were totally engaged, which led us to change direction,” Banghart said of the second quarter. “And also just a lot of staying connected. And then on the offensive end, the ball moved. They hit open people, they caught shot-ready. There wasn’t that hesitancy that I saw against Georgia Tech. We had a big week when we talked about our personal responsibilities in our offense.”
Duke couldn’t cut into the lead and trailed 61–38 after three quarters when Ustby added seven points.
“Coming in, we knew that Carolina was a really good defensive team, and they just played really well today getting into the passing lanes, putting pressure on us,” Duke’s Vanessa de Jesus said.
The Blue Devils trimmed a 25-point deficit to 16 on a Mela Goodchild 3-pointer with 1:16 left but they could come no closer.
“This game was fun,” Todd-Williams said. “We had fun, shared the ball and we just had a lot of energy.”
Goodchild and Elizabeth Balogun led Duke with 14 points each.
The Tar Heels return home at 4 p.m. Sunday to face the Wolfpack (ACC Network) looking to avenge a 72–45 loss in Raleigh on Jan. 6. State (18–2, 9–0), which didn’t have a mid-week game, beat Virginia Tech at home 51–45 on Sunday for its eighth consecutive victory.
Directors’ Cup standings
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||Home||Syracuse|
|January (4–3, 4–3 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 4 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 19 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 18 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||No. 21 Duke|
|30||Sunday, 4, ACCN||Home||No. 4 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. 21 Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge