UNC women face hostile road crowd at Arizona, talented Wildcats team

By R.L. Bynum

North Carolina faces a challenging scenario for Monday night’s second-round NCAA women’s tournament game that never happens in the men’s tournament.

The No. 5-seed and 17th ranked Tar Heels (24–6) will have to beat No. 4-seed and 19th-ranked Arizona (21–7) on the Wildcats’ homecourt before a crowd of likely more than 10,000 at the McKale Center to earn their first Sweet 16 berth since 2015.

They’ll also have to get by a team with a talented backcourt and a tall, imposing group of post players.

The winner of the 10 p.m. game (ESPN2) advances to a Friday matchup in Greensboro with No. 1 South Carolina, which took advantage of that dynamic Sunday by beating Miami 49–33 at home. Both had a difficult time in the first round, with Carolina finally beating No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin 79–66 and Arizona getting past No. 13-seed UNLV 72–67.

Carolina lost both regular-season road games in front of crowds of at least 5,500 (at N.C. State on Jan. 6 and at Notre Dame on Jan. 16) but has come a long way since those two January losses.

“Personally, I love to play in front of big crowds, especially at away games because there isn’t always necessarily an underlying theme of love and so you just kind of get to interact with people,” guard Eva Hodgson said.

After dealing with Wolfpack fans in Raleigh, forward Alyssa Ustby (top photo) doesn’t expect Monday’s crowd in Tucson, Ariz., to be any worse.

“That fan base is a little more aggressive towards some of the players, kind of rightfully so, considering the rivalry,” Ustby said of State fans. “I think our team is going to have a lot of fun playing in that crowd for sure.”

Third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart is happy to see women’s basketball drawing big crowds because she says it means that the game matters. But she sees a clear downside for her team.

“I think the crowd size definitely creates an advantage for Arizona,” Banghart said, pointing to the crowd noise and remembering some raucous Carmichael Arena crowds. “Even though they are rooting for you, they are still messing with the play calls. I can’t hear them. My guys can’t hear me. Just a testament to how the community rallied. As a basketball coach, it’s gratifying.”

The environment will be one of many concerns for Carolina against an Arizona team that lost to Stanford 54–53 in the NCAA championship game last season. The Wildcats lost Aari McDonald, a WNBA All-Rookie Team pick, from that team, but have plenty of talent to worry about.

UNC and Arizona both earned narrow victories over Louisville. The Wildcats beat the Cardinals 61–59 in overtime on Nov. 12 in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Tar Heels beat the Cardinals 66–65 in Chapel Hill on Feb. 17.

UNC will face the most imposing group of interior players since Georgia Tech, with 6-2 senior Cate Reese (14.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game), 6-0 senior Sam Thomas (8.3 points per game and 29 blocks) and 6-5 sophomore Lauren Ware (5.9 points per game and 27 blocks) making it tough to drive to the basket.

Given that the game against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta resulted in a rough 55–38 defeat, it could be cause for concern. UNC is a much better team than when that game was played in January and the lessons from that game can be applied against Arizona.

“I think we learned a ton from that game,” said Hodgson, adding that Arizona presses differently than the Jackets. “Understanding how we can attack a little bit more and create more for each other, which I felt like we did a good job of as the game went on [Saturday] night. And so doing that and just allowing the defense to spark the offense in the transition game, because I don’t think we had too much of that against Georgia Tech. I think that will be key for [Monday].”

UNC went small for large portions of its Saturday win over SFA. Will the Tar Heels be able to do that and force Arizona to play small, or will the Wildcats’ inside clout dictate UNC playing post players more?

“No matter the size players we put in there, it’s the heart that makes up for it,” Hodgson said. “And Alyssa is not the biggest person on the court most of the time, but the way that she fights with some of the biggest players on the court just goes to show that we’re not going to back down no matter what the size of the opponent is.”

Against SFA, the only UNC post players who played, Anya Poole and Ally Zelaya, combined to play only 28 minutes, fewer than four other players.

“We have to adjust to what the game requires. We’ve had some really good bigs in the league and Alyssa guarded both of them just fine,” Banghart said of Ustby, who makes the small lineup work against a taller team because she doesn’t mind mixing it up with bigger opponents.

She clearly is confident, and that goes a long way as well.

“I think my speed makes up for a lot of it,” Ustby said. “So, circling the post, making entry really difficult, and I think I have more longevity throughout the game.  I take pride in my conditioning, and I have worked really hard with that, so I know I can outlast any post player.”

Banghart said that Ustby’s elite-level footwork makes up for any size disparity.

“She’s got great angles,” Banghart said.  “She’s really efficient with the footwork and a high motor and really competitive. That kind of makes up for size.”

The experience of dealing with SFA’s suffocating defense on Saturday will be good experience against Arizona, which also brings a lot of defensive pressure. Carolina just hopes that it has shaken the rustiness from a 10-day layoff that made navigating the pressure tough for much of Saturday’s win.

After scoring 28 points in the first round, UNC guard Deja Kelly is at the top of Arizona’s scouting report. She’ll likely have to deal with the defense of 5-10 senior guard Bendu Yeaney (58 assists against 38 turnovers with 44 steals and 11 blocks) or 5-8 senior guard Shaina Pellington (11.6 points per game, 61 assists against 41 turnovers with 38 steals).

Yeaney said their goal will be to not let Kelly score.

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“Just make her take a lot of tough shots,” said Yeaney, who is an inch taller than Kelly. “She likes a lot of pull-ups, so just make a lot of her pull-ups really hard. She likes going left a lot, so try to force her right to make her uncomfortable. So just making her as uncomfortable as possible. I think I have a lot of length and I’m a little taller than her so it’s going to help me have a little advantage.”

With the Tar Heels’ balanced offense, though, Kelly has plenty of options if they make open shots tough to find and she needs to be more of a distributor.

“Will Arizona require that she scores 28 for us to win or will it require her to be more of a facilitator and play through their aggressive defense to give more people open looks? I don’t know,” Banghart said. “I don’t know how the game is going to go. It’s just having really good players willing to understand what their role needs to be as the moment calls for it.”

Playing well in the big moments Monday night won’t mean UNC plays on its homecourt but they will be able to play close to home.

Greensboro Region

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)
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

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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