Kelly hits 28 as UNC women storm by SFA with huge fourth quarter

By R.L. Bynum

North Carolina showed again what it has done many times when facing adversity this season: Handle it, show poise, take control and leave the opponent reeling.

A sensational 28-point game from Deja Kelly, an animated halftime speech from third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart and a decisive 14–3 fourth-quarter run ensured the first NCAA tournament win for her and all of her players.

The No. 5-seed Tar Heels never led through the middle two quarters against pesky No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin before lowering the boom in the final quarter on their way to a 79–66 victory Saturday in their first game in 15 days.

“What I’ll remember about this game is how much these guys trusted each other. When things weren’t going well, the ball moved better and they just really trusted each other,” Banghart said.

UNC (24–6) advanced to a 10 p.m. second-round game Monday (ESPN2) in the Greensboro Regional against subregional host Arizona (21–7) after the Tar Heels’ first NCAA victory since 2015. The Wildcats advanced with a 72–67 win over UNLV.

“It took us a little longer than expected, but we knew that it had been a while since we played,” Kelly said. “We played one game in two weeks. At halftime our talk was like, we’re good, let’s just push through it, we’re going to fight to win this game, we’re not backing down and we pulled it out in the second half.”

Banghart wasn’t at all happy with her team when it trailed the upstart Ladyjacks by three points at halftime and she let them know it. She was asked if that was the most animated she’s been with the team at halftime of a game.

“My grandmother wouldn’t have been happy to be in the room if that’s what you’re asking,” Banghart said. “We were hoping that they could play their rust off, but that didn’t happen. So I felt like I could maybe push it off myself with my words. Just going back to our principles and asking us to be more aggressive and imploring more energy and activity and angles on both sides of the ball. So I would say it was a lot of imploring their energy out of them.”

Kelly, who scored 20 second-half points, was one of five Tar Heels to score in double figures and led the team with four 3-pointers. Kennedy Todd-Williams collected 15 points and five rebounds, with Carlie Littlefield and Alyssa Ustby both getting 13 points and eight rebounds. Eva Hodgson had 10 points and two 3-pointers.

“I think in the fourth quarter, we just had to dig deep,” Ustby said. “Everybody is tired at that point. You’re playing a great opponent, so it’s about doing the little things, talking to your teammates, getting in gaps, being on help-side defense. We really had to focus and lock in defensively in order to keep them off the scoreboard.”

The Tar Heels struggled to put away SFA (28–5) and hadn’t led since late in the first quarter when they reeled off the decisive run. Torrid defense fueled the final quarter as SFA went nearly five minutes without a field goal.

“I think it started with the defensive end. I think we had a lot more energy,” said Kelly, who pointed to an Ustby steal as the turning point. “As we saw Alyssa do that, we all turned it up defensively, and then that led to easy offense. We hit a lot of threes, transition threes, layups, got to the free-throw line.”

It helped to have a dangerous scorer such as Kelly to pull the Tar Heels through and get the big buckets when they needed them.

“Especially when I get the ball inside, I’m looking out for open shooters,” said Ustby, who said that finding the open player against SFA’s pressure was crucial. “When I pass to Deja, I trust that she’s going to make the right read and she’s consistently shown me to do that. So I just know as soon as I pass it to her, I’m looking and I’m ready to box out just in case she misses, but she doesn’t miss often.”

After Kelly struggled in Carolina’s 80–71 first-round NCAA loss last season to Alabama, Banghart wondered how she would respond in her second NCAA game and admitted to being a little worried that she would force it.

“We met [Friday] and talked about what would it take, what would you playing well look like, and she’s a cerebral player so she thinks through all the different aspects of the game,” Banghart said of Kelly, who had four assists. “I thought when she was able to facilitate a little bit more, it opened her up and the ball moved better. So we got her moving a little bit better in the second half, and that opened her up.”

Zya Nugent looked like she would single-handedly earn the Ladyjacks an upset. She scored 26 points and five 3-pointers before fouling out with 2:18 left as SFA seemed to run out of gas at the end.

Ustby noticed the resignation in the faces of SFA’s players.

“When I was guarding their low post, I noticed her stop posting up and stop being aggressive, so that’s when I knew I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to pick it up a notch because they’re starting to back down,’ and they didn’t fight back,” Ustby said. “But that’s a tribute to our defense and our active on-ball engagement.”

The Tar Heels got off to a quick start after a Kelly four-point play and a layup and jumper from Ustby gave them an 8–2 lead. But SFA came back to take a brief 10–8 lead before a 3-point play by Ustby started a 7–0 run to go up 15–10.

They were tied at 18 after one quarter, and Ustby had seven points but also two fouls.
Avery Brittingham scored five points in a 10–0 SFA run to start the second quarter before Ustby’s jumper ended it. After the Ladyjacks again took a 10-point lead, UNC finished the first half with a 9–2 run to trim SFA’s lead to 36–33 by halftime.

The always resilient Tar Heels worked through the rough patches of the game together.

Alyssa Ustby said that the huddles during the tough stretches were important for Carolina.

“Those huddles are so important, especially if one of us has a bad foul and there’s just a lot of heat in the moment,” Ustby said. “We pull each other together, calm everybody down, get us on the right page and get us moving forward.”

SFA led by as many as eight points in the third quarter, but Kelly scored nine points in an 11–4 run to slice the Ladyjacks’ lead to 48–47 with 5:37 left. Todd-Williams’ transition layup tied it at 54 with 43 seconds left.

Kelly and Ustby both said that the team’s connectedness was the key to turning the game around.

“During those two quarters, we knew that was a pivotal part of the game,” Ustby said. “It’s either we go up together or we go down. We just had the confidence in each other, we trusted each other, and instead of pointing outward we pointed inward, and we were saying ‘I’ll be there on your help side, I will box out, you can get the rebound.’ It’s about working together.”

Two Nugent free throws gave SFA a 56–54 lead entering the final quarter.

Driving layups by Hodgson and Todd-Williams gave the Heels their first lead since late in the first quarter at 58–56 with 8:18 left. A Todd-Williams jumper and 3-pointers from Kelly and Littlefield, along with another Kelly jumper shoved the lead to 11 with 4:38 remaining and the Heels were on their way to victory.

“We knew that coming in how talented they were, that it most likely was the most talented team we had faced all year, and they were,” SFA coach Mark Kellogg said. “We made some defensive mistakes, and you can’t do it — we were so dialed in I thought for the most part other than transition defense a little bit that whole game, and then they just made us pay, and that’s what they can do, teams of North Carolina caliber. They make you pay when you make a mistake.”

UNC has made teams pay for playing pressure defense all season but it took until the fourth quarter for that to kick in consistently end.

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No. 17 UNC 79, SFA 66

Greensboro Regional

First round
Friday’s games
At Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, S.C.

Miami 78, South Florida 66
South Carolina 79, Howard 21
At James H. Hilton Coliseum
Ames, Iowa

Georgia 70, Dayton 54
Iowa St. 78, Texas-Arlington 71
At Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa City, Iowa

Creighton 84, Colorado 74
Iowa 98, Illinois St. 58
Saturday’s games
At McKale Center
Tuscon, Ariz.

North Carolina 79, Stephen F. Austin 66
Arizona 72, UNLV 67
Second round
Sunday’s games
At Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, S.C.

South Carolina 49, Miami 33
At James H. Hilton Coliseum
Ames, Iowa

Iowa State (27-6) vs. Georgia (21-9), 7 p.m.
At Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa City, Iowa

Creighton 64, Iowa 62
Monday’s games
At McKale Center
Tuscon, Ariz.

Arizona (21-7) vs. North Carolina (24-6), 10 p.m., ESPN2
Regional semifinals
At Greensboro Coliseum
Friday, March 25

South Carolina (31-2) vs. Arizona/North Carolina winner, TBA
Creighton (22-9) vs. Iowa St./Georgia winner, TBA
Regional Championship
At Greensboro Coliseum
Sunday, March 27

Semifinal winners, TBA

NCAA tournament bracket

DateScore, record/
time, day TV
LocationOpponent
(current rank)
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, 2–0HomeSyracuse
January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)
281–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACCHomeClemson
672–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1RoadNo. 3 N.C. State
971–46 win, 14–1, 4–1HomeNo. 21 Virginia Tech
1670–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2RoadNo. 17 Notre Dame
2061–52 win, 15–2, 5–2HomeVirginia
2355–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3RoadNo. 25 Georgia Tech
2778–62 win, 16–3, 6–3RoadDuke
3066–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4HomeNo. 3 N.C. State
February (7–1, 7–1 ACC)
378–59 win, 17–4, 7–4RoadWake Forest
685–38 win, 18–4, 8–4HomeMiami
1064–54 win, 19–4, 9–4HomePittsburgh
1366–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5RoadNo. 17 Virginia Tech
1766–65 win, 20–5, 10–5HomeNo. 5 Louisville
2064–49 win, 21–5, 11–5RoadFlorida State
2468–57 win, 22–5, 12–5RoadVirginia
2774–46 win, 23–5, 14–5HomeDuke
March (0–1)
—— ACC Tournament ——
487–80 OT loss, 23–6GreensboroNo. 17 Virginia Tech
—— NCAA Tournament ——
1979–66 win, 24–6Tucson, Ariz.Stephen F. Austin
2110 p.m. Monday, ESPN2Tucson, Ariz.No. 19 Arizona or UNLV

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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