UNC women roll into first Sweet 16 in 7 years with relentless defense

By R.L. Bynum

Carolina’s relentless defense has frustrated many opponents all season. Add Arizona to that list, and put the Tar Heels down for their first Sweet 16 in seven years.

UNC held the Wildcats scoreless for nearly 11½ first-half minutes to take control on their way to a 63–45 true road victory Monday night in Tucson, Ariz., in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“To say that I’m really proud to be bringing a team to the Sweet 16 would be an understatement,” said third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart, her hair drenched after being doused by her team with water in the locker room. “There has been so much roster reconstruction since I got the job. These guys trusted me to say, ‘let’s do this right’ and that’s one thing to say it and another to do it.”

The Tar Heels (25–6) advance to a Sweet 16 matchup at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN) at the Greensboro Coliseum with No. 1 South Carolina (31–2), which made the Greensboro Regional semifinals with a 49–33 Sunday home win over Miami. It’s the 18th Sweet 16 appearance in UNC program history.

Carolina joined Iowa State and Michigan as the only schools with Sweet 16 teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments. UNC last pulled off that double in 2015.

In the hostile environment with 8,333 fans at McKale Center with a pocket of UNC fans behind its bench, No. 5 seed and 17th-ranked UNC combined that defense with excellent rebounding (winning the boards for the 11th consecutive game at 40–34) against a taller No. 4 seed and 19th ranked Arizona team and terrific ball movement on offense with 15 of UNC’s 21 field goals assisted.

The Tar Heels got sensational games from Kennedy Todd-Williams (19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and outstanding defense with three steals) and Alyssa Ustby (12 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and terrific defense with four steals).

“We sort of felt like we should be hosting. There was only one thing to do is to prove it and these guys earned it,” Banghart said, looking over at the press conference table to Deja Kelly and Todd-Williams. “You earned it, not only today but how you handled yourself all year long.”

The way to overcome a raucous crowd is to give them nothing to cheer about and Arizona (21–8) didn’t offer much to get them going. The Tar Heels were quite effective in keeping them quiet.

UNC ousted a Wildcats team that made it all the way to the NCAA championship game last season. The 45 points were the second-fewest by Arizona in a game this season for a team that came into the game averaging 67.2 points, and UNC did it while committing only six fouls.

“One of our coaches said to build the wall before this game and that’s exactly what we did,” Todd-Williams said of the defense. “I think we just played together and played with a lot of energy and that just showed because the transition to offense, and we started rolling from there.”

UNC has the most wins in a season since going 26–9 in 2014–15, when its season ended in Greensboro with a 67–65 loss to the Gamecocks in the Tar Heels’ last previous Sweet 16 appearance.

Arizona’s Shaina Pellington, who scored 30 points in the first-round win over UNLV, was scoreless in the first half and finished with three points against tough defense from Todd-Williams.

“We wanted Toddy’s length on Pellington,” said Banghart, who put Kelly on Sam Thomas and said that it was an overall solid defensive effort by her team. “We moved Deja to Thomas and wanted her to contest at the arc and we’d have good gap help by our longer defenders. Part of it was scout and part of it was, in March, good that good players are making good plays.”

Todd-Williams said that the scouting report made it easier to figure out how to stop Pellington.

“We knew going into this game, she’s a great player,” Todd-Williams said. “But we really just locked in. I mean, that’s the biggest thing and everybody stays connected and we really built that wall for sure.”

Similarly, the Wildcats focused their defense on UNC’s Deja Kelly, who scored 10 of her 15 points in the second half after hitting 28 in the first-round win over Stephen F. Austin. Her jumper at the third-quarter buzzer for a three-point play was huge.

“They were playing really aggressive on me, really tight,” said Kelly, who figured that would be Arizona’s game plan. “But I thought that was fine because why not guard everyone else? So now Kennedy is getting her buckets. Lys is getting her buckets. Everyone’s getting runouts. So, thought that worked out perfectly because then my man was hugging, so it allowed them to attack the gaps, attack the wings. So, I think the game plan worked out well for us.”

What exactly did Todd-Williams bring Carolina in Monday’s huge win? As Kelly put it, “everything.”

“She was running on the floor, she was defending, getting steals,” Kelly said. “She was doing a little bit of everything, which is what we needed her to do. She was our X factor tonight and she is probably the biggest reason why we won this game.”

Ustby was her typical versatile self with her 13th double-double of the season, leading the team in rebounds (12), blocks (2) and steals (4). She defended guard Cate Reese, holding her to six points, and guarded a post player when Reese was out.

“Alyssa is the motor,” said Banghart, who only took Ustby out at the end of the game so that she could celebrate. “That kid plays so hard every minute. We would not be sitting here this far along in March without Alyssa Ustby. It’s all about heart and that’s what we pride ourselves on in the program.”

Carolina scored the last six points of the first quarter to take a 14–9 lead into the second quarter behind six points from Todd-Williams, who tied her career scoring high. The Tar Heels got out in transition and could have led by more with some more favorable rolls on the rim.

UNC took advantage of that long first-half Arizona scoring drought to score 15 consecutive points, six from Todd-Williams, to go up by 14 points. Center Anya Poole, who was scoreless in 10 minutes against SFA, scored six of her eight points in the second quarter and pulled down six rebounds.

Banghart said that the big runs Carolina went on against Arizona were no surprise to her, pointing out that UNC is top five in the country in scoring margin despite a rugged ACC schedule.

“We’ve been doing that; we’re a hard team to put away and we also were dangerous to go on runs,” Banghart said. “So, that’s been pretty much our staple in terms of most of our season. So, this game went honestly as planned.”

The Wildcats cut their deficit to 28–17 by halftime with an 8-4 run.

Arizona (with 9 points in the first quarter and eight in the second) became the fifth UNC opponent to score single-digit points in each of the first two periods (vs. Duke, at Wake Forest, vs. Appalachian State and vs. Charlotte). The Wildcats (23.1%) became the 10th UNC opponent to shoot 25% or worse in the first half.

After the Wildcats cut UNC’s lead to seven, a Todd-Williams 3-pointer and a Kelly jumper pushed the advantage back to 12. After a 3-pointer from Arizona’s Bendu Yeaney, Kelly scored six of UNC’s 14 consecutive points to balloon the lead to 24 points early in the fourth quarter after leading 47–27 through three quarters.

A 14–3 Arizona run sliced UNC’s lead to 15 with 3:43 left on three consecutive Thomas layups as the Tar Heels suddenly got sloppy on offense but the Wildcats could come no closer.

“North Carolina did a great job,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “They played well. They disrupted us. They really congested the paint. Didn’t allow us to drive and we kind of lived and died by the 3-point shot in the first half and just couldn’t convert.”

Thomas led Arizona with 15 points and three 3-pointers and Yeaney added 10.

No. 17 UNC 63, No. 19 Arizona 45

Greensboro Region

Last 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
Last Saturday’s games
At McKale Center
Tucson, 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 67, Georgia 44
At Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa City, Iowa

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

North Carolina 63, Arizona 45
Regional semifinals
At Greensboro Coliseum
Friday’s games

South Carolina (31-2) vs. North Carolina (25-6), 7 p.m., ESPN
Creighton (22-9) vs. Iowa State (28-6), 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
Regional championship
At Greensboro Coliseum
Sunday’s games

Semifinal winners

DateScore, record/
time, day, TV
(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 (2–1)
—— ACC Tournament ——
487–80 OT loss, 23–6GreensboroNo. 17 Virginia Tech
—— NCAA tournament ——
1979–66 win, 24–6Tucson, Ariz.Stephen F. Austin
2163–45 win, 25–6RoadArizona
257 p.m. Friday, ESPNGreensboroSouth Carolina
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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