By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina guard Eva Hodgson is the perfect example of a player who brings energy and versatility off the bench, and she’s done it all season.
When she entered the No. 23 Tar Heels’ 64–54 Thursday victory over Pittsburgh late in the first quarter, she scored a pair of 3-pointers in 64 seconds. By the time she returned to the bench 11 minutes later, she already had nine of her 14 points, three of her five rebounds and a steal.
When a 10–0 Panthers run cut UNC’s lead to seven in the fourth quarter, she shot down their chances. Hodgson took a Deja Kelly pass and sank a 3-pointer from the right wing with 4:55 left, just when Carolina (19–4, 9–4 ACC) needed it. The nine ACC wins are the most since 2015.
“Coach has been telling me every single game [and] practice, shoot the ball, shoot the ball, shoot the ball, and so when I hit two relatively early in the first half, I was like, all right, feeling good,” Hodgson said. “And then I kind of take them as they come in the game. That one, I was wide open and I was like, all right, just shoot it like you shoot it. And I did and it was big-time. It was a three that we kind of needed to separate ourselves.”
When Kelly saw her open, she knew Hodgson would knock it down.
“Usually, every time I pass to her, I know she’s going to hit that three,” said Kelly, who led UNC with 17 points. “So that was exciting. And that definitely was a game-changer for us. They were starting to chip away a little bit and I think with that three, that just gave us some momentum and I think that put the game away pretty much.”
Hodgson added a layup off of an Alyssa Ustby pass with 1:34 remaining.
“She’s a leader as well,” Kelly said of Hodgson. “She uses her voice really well and we listen. So, Eva is a really, really big spark for us.”
UNC coach Courtney Banghart says that Hodgson collaborates for the team and is a glue player.
“Eva brings energy, she brings poise, she brings a competitiveness,” Banghart said. “Coming off the bench, it lets me put her in at any variety of positions and any variety of times and she can roll with that with her experience and she’s just a talented competitor.”
One first-half play exemplifies the determination that she gives UNC every game.
Hodgson battled a Panthers player on the floor for a loose ball after her pass was deflected. She attacked the play with the tenacity of a wrestler attempting a takedown, leading to a held ball. Hodgson was immediately mad at herself the second the pass left her hand because she knew that the Pittsburgh player had read her eyes.
“So, I was like, ‘There’s no way that she’s getting a steal on me,’ ” said Hodgson, who is a graduate student but a junior athletically, and says she’s excited to return next season. “If anything, it’s gonna be a jump ball. And that’s kind of my mentality. I think I had a turnover or something on the other end, and I go take a charge. So if I mess it up on one, I’m gonna get it back on the other end. And that’s just kind of how I’m wired.”
She consistently hustles to hit the boards unlike many guards and makes a difference on the defense, and Thursday night was the latest example. She said that she was born with that intensity, aided by having seven siblings, including four older brothers and younger brother and sister.
“So there’s both the competitive side that I have with all my older brothers, but then also the lifting and motherly side for my younger siblings. So I would say it’s been since birth,” Hodgson said of her intensity. “My parents would say that, too.”
Hodgson said she’s been working with the assistant coaches to make it easier to play well as soon as she enters the game.
“I’m glad it showed tonight because it was very needed,” she said.
Hodgson, who led the CAA in scoring (20.7 points per game) her sophomore season at William & Mary two years ago, would be starting at most schools. But she has embraced and thrived in her role playing behind fellow MBA student Carlie Littlefield, even though coming off the bench meant a lot of adjusting.
Some players might let their egos get in the way with a shift like that but not Hodgson.
“It’s a mentality my parents kind of engraved in us at a young age,” Hodgson said. “You contribute in any ways possible. And whether that means I come off the bench, if I was needed to be a cheerleader on the bench, that’s what I would be.
“Kind of whatever I need to do, I’m going to do and it allows me to be my teammates’ hype man,” she said. “I love getting hype for them when they make shots or good plays or anything like that. And, so, it allows me to come in and be a little bit of a spark and just bring an energy. I love it.”
Banghart said that Hodgson being such a complete player makes it easier for her to jump off the bench and right into the flow of the game even if she’s cold and most players on the court are warmed up.
“She can do that because she doesn’t need to kind of settle into the rhythm of the game,” Banghart said. “She can go and play with the ball in her hands, as a shooter, as a facilitator, as a defender. Really, it’s a testament to how good she is actually, that she can do that role so well and it makes us better.”
Banghart said that she doesn’t know where the team would be without Hodgson, and she got a taste of it at Notre Dame. With Hodgson back home in Chapel Hill in COVID-19 protocols, the Tar Heels lost 70–65.
Carolina has won three in a row for the first time since winning their first three league games. UNC’s third consecutive win over the Panthers and fifth in the last six meetings evened the all-time series at six. It was UNC’s 22nd consecutive regular-season win over an unranked opponent. Pittsburgh (11–12, 2–10) has lost three games in a row for the second time during the ACC season.
Ustby had another big game with 10 points, 12 rebounds and four assists for her 10th double-double of the season and third in a row. Kennedy Todd-Williams added nine points, four assists and a team-high two steals.
UNC shot 32.2%, their fourth-worst shooting game of the season in a choppy game full of mystery officiating that was difficult to predict.
“It was a hard game to get any sort of rhythm,” Banghart said. “There were a lot of fouls called; there were a lot of fouls not called. There was a lot of choppy play. Good teams have to win ugly and I just told them in here we haven’t won ugly very much. And so if they won ugly a lot, I’d be a little madder. But I’ll chalk this one up as one of those — win ugly and get ready for the next one.”
Pittsburgh’s 6–4 center Rita Igbokwe can be an intimidating presence inside. She did block five shots but Carolina did a good job of passing out of double-teams inside to create good shots. Against the best rebounding team in the league, UNC won the boards 43–36. The Panthers only had eight offensive rebounds, half of their average.
Four points from Ustby and back-to-back three-pointers from Todd-Williams and Carlie Littlefield gave UNC a 10–2 lead in the first four minutes. Two Hodgson 3-pointers in the last two minutes gave the Heels an 18–7 lead after one quarter, the 23rd time this season they’ve held an opponent to single-digit points in a quarter.
An 11–0 first-half run pushed the Tar Heels to a 34–18 halftime lead even though they shot only 28.1%. That matched the worst first-half shooting of the season (also at N.C. State).
Carolina started the second half slowly, but Kelly’s five points sparked an 11–2 run to push the lead to 22 and the Heels took a 51–34 edge into the final quarter. Pittsburgh scored the first 10 points of the final quarter to trim its deficit to seven before Hodgson’s 3-pointer ended the run.
“They’re relentless. They never stopped,” Banghart said of Pittsburgh. “The basket gets bigger when you have less pressure. They were pushing it down our throats and we were sort of still reeling a little bit.”
Banghart used a small lineup for stretches in the fourth quarter without any of UNC’s three centers, partly because Pitt went small. That allowed Carolina to switch on everything defensively and slow the Panthers’ success off ball screens in the middle of the floor.
“We just really wanted to keep bodies in front of the ball that way, and also that would allow the rebounding to be more in place instead of having to rebound on a rotation,” Banghart said.
Jayla Everett led Pittsburgh with 18 points.
The Tar Heels head to Blacksburg, Va., on Sunday at 1 p.m. (ESPN3) to face Virginia Tech in a huge game as they try to secure a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. The Hokies (17–6, 10–3) beat No. 11 Georgia Tech 73–63 at home Thursday night.
UNC won the first meeting 71–46 in Chapel Hill on Nov. 9, in Virginia Tech’s worst loss of the season.
No. 23 UNC 64, Pitt 54
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. 5 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 18 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 11 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 5 N.C. State|
|February (3–0, 3–0 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||85–38 win, 18–4, 8–4||Home||Miami|
|10||64–54 win, 19–4, 9–4||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||Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications