By R.L. Bynum
WINSTON-SALEM — After battling four talented ranked ACC teams in the last five games, No. 24 North Carolina took full advantage of a night against a struggling league team.
The Tar Heels’ 78–59 win over Wake Forest looked and felt like many of their dominant games during the 13-game unbeaten streak, particularly in the first half, and they led by 29 midway through the final quarter.
UNC (17–4, 7–4 ACC) took control early by consistently beating the overmatched Deacs in transition (12 first-half fast-break points) and sharing the ball (7 of 13 first-half field goals and 14 of 27 for the game were assisted).
It gave the Heels back-to-back impressive road league wins after blowing out Duke a week earlier, and was Coach Courtney Banghart’s 300th career coaching victory.
Few came much easier than this one against the Deacons (12–10, 2–9), who suffered their seventh consecutive defeat, with nine Carolina players scoring and six collecting multiple assists.
“It means I’m getting old. I think that that’s certainly part of it,” said Banghart, who is only 43. “It means I’ve been in this game a long time.”
Getting No. 300, and her 46th UNC win, with this group that she enjoys coaching made it special, and led to an extended celebration in the dressing room.
She became the sixth current ACC coach to reach that mark, joining Florida State’s Sue Semrau, Louisville’s Jeff Walz, Miami’s Katie Meier, N.C. State’s Wes Moore and Virginia Tech’s Kenny Brooks.
“This job takes a lot out of you. And it requires a lot from you,” she said. “And when you get to do it with people that you genuinely really love, I’m grateful. And they let me coach them and that takes an element of trust, takes a lot of commitment. And there’s something really sweet when you love your team and you get to celebrate this moment with them.”
After the terrific effort in the Sunday loss to No. 3 N.C. State, Banghart was worried that this might be a trap game. The small, sleepy crowd could have increased the chances. To the contrary, the Heels put their foot on the gas from the start.
“This first five is getting so experienced together,” Banghart said. “There’s just no weak link in the group. How they came out on both ends of the ball was the team I’m starting to really start to expect.”
Alyssa Ustby scored the game’s first five points and rolled from there with game-high totals of 18 points and 10 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the season.
“I’m just so glad to be a part of it,” Ustby said. “I mean, these don’t come around very often. So, I’m just very fortunate to be here and celebrate with her and the team.”
Kennedy Todd-Williams was solid on both ends of the court again, with 14 points, five rebounds, four steals, three assists and a career-high-tying two blocks.
“We had good energy throughout the whole game,” Todd-Williams said. “It was a physical game, but I think we definitely kept our composure and really just locked in to keeping our feet under us and just staying down, not fouling as much. But I think we did pretty good. Obviously, a good bounce back from Sunday.”
Deja Kelly scored 12 points to go along with three assists as she started to regain her shooting stroke after combining for 13 in the previous three games.
“It was so great,” Ustby said. “Once she made that first pull-up, I just knew that took the lid off the basket and she’s going up from here.”
Jewel Spear, the ACC’s leading scorer (19.3 points per game before Thursday), was scoreless for nearly 16½ minutes and without a field goal for the first 22. UNC held her to a team-high 13 points, six in the fourth quarter, by rotating multiple players against her.
“We wanted her to work for everything; I think we did,” Banghart said. “When we look through her stat sheet, we’ll notice a lot of shots that were challenged. And, so, we didn’t lose her. She’s a great player. So, she’s going to make good shots. We wanted them all to be contested, and they were.”
Carolina had lost four of the previous five games to the Deacs, but this was a different team after the departures of their top two scorers from last season in Ivana Raca and Gina Conti.
When games go well, defense is the catalyst and that was the case again on Thursday. UNC forced 26 turnovers, got into the lanes on transition and scored 20 points off of them.
“Those are quick outlets to run up the floor,” Todd-Williams said. “Alyssa knows how to run the floor, so we know how to look for her. Obviously, Coach talks about rebounding, and our players are stepping up in those areas. We do a good job really in transition. I mean, that’s our bread and butter.”
The chemistry on the court between Todd-Williams and Ustby, both sophomores, really showed against Wake Forest.
“My double-double and my scores come from just selfless guard play,” Ustby said. “We do a great job grabbing boards and kicking it out to Kennedy Todd, and she just trusts me and throws it up the floor. And that’s a trust that takes a lot of time to build. And I feel like we’ve had that foundation and we just keep growing on it.”
Banghart is just glad to have those two players generating the transition opportunities.
“I think that we’re hard to guard in transition,” Banghart said. “Alyssa is just an elite run player. And when you have a rebounder like Toddy who can rebound and start the break, you can play fast.
“We have multiple guys that can ignite the break, which helps us,” Banghart said. “But they know that’s a part of our game plan every game, to put our foot on the gas. And you know this group is doing that. And when they do, they’re going to be really hard to beat.”
Freshman Destiny Adams was impressive off the bench with six points, four rebounds and two steals in 11 minutes.
It was a good game for Carolina to shoot 78.3% from the free-throw line (18 of 23) considering the officials called a combined 42 fouls. After going 3 of 11 from the line in the loss at Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels have made 37 of 46 since then.
The Tar Heels got a season-high 20 fouls (also against N.C. A&T, Boston College and Notre Dame). The Deacs went 18 of 26 from the line; both figures are season-highs for UNC opponents.
“We are one of the youngest teams in this conference and going through some growing pains, but we will continue to attack the process,” said Wake Forest coach Jen Hoover, who had two starters foul out. “There is a lot of fight left in this team and we will fight.”
UNC jumped out to a 9–2 lead in the first 3½ minutes and took a 16–6 lead into the second quarter. It was the seventh time this season that UNC has held an opponent to six or fewer points in a quarter and second time in ACC play (Virginia scored four in the second quarter.)
The rout was on when Carolina scored the first eight second-quarter points, half coming from Todd-Williams.
Carolina finished the first half with an 8–0 run to lead 40–15 with nearly as many fast-break points (12) as the Deacons’ point total, thanks to their 21% shooting. UNC’s point totals in both the first quarter (16) and the second (14) were better than Wake’s total for the half. It was the fourth time the Tar Heels have held an opponent to 15 or fewer points in a half.
The Deacs trimmed the Carolina lead 17 with a 9–0 run early in the second half, but the Tar Heels responded with a 6–0 run. Wake Forest went from 16 first-half points to 25 third-quarter points but still trailed 60–40 entering the final quarter.
“Our guys just totally punched and stayed cohesive through a kind of an up and down, sloppy type of game,” Banghart said. “So, really happy with the win and looking forward to the next one.”
The Tar Heels return home at noon Sunday to face Miami (ACC Network). The Hurricanes (12–8, 5–5) beat Syracuse 71–65 at home Thursday night.
No. 24 North Carolina 78,
Wake Forest 59
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 (4–4, 4–4 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 3 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 14 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 3 N.C. State|
|February (1–0, 1–0 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||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. 5 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications