By R.L. Bynum
Just when you think that Alyssa Ustby, seen last spring kicking 35-yard field goals at Kenan Stadium, can’t show more of her athleticism, she impresses fans with more stuff.
Well, one in particular.
Proving to be one of the most versatile women’s college basketball players during her first two Carolina seasons probably had a lot to do with Ustby representing her country. Her United States U23 three-on-three team went 18–0 at the Americas Conference in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, a seven-day event that ended Friday.
Ustby, who was second in the ACC last season in double-doubles with 13, had a lot to do with the U.S. easily advancing to the Nations League final Sept. 14–16 in Constanta, Romania. She turned heads during games, like she always does, with her ability to rebound, score, pass and play good defense in a physical, intense competition.
But the way she “elevated” her game was new.
Read about the humble beginnings of the Carolina women’s basketball programs, from coaches driving teams to games to playing and practicing in a dangerously gym, the program has come a long way. Learn interesting stories about the program in this Tar Heel Tribune story.
“I was going up for a layup and was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I got up high. That felt good,’ ” said Ustby, who had only previously dunked a mini-basketball on a 10-foot rim. “My wrist was well above the rim when I laid it up.”
Some USA men’s three-on-three team players started urging her to try a dunk. Ustby said that the plastic floor gave her more bounce than a regular wooden court, so she gave it a shot, eventually flushing one down to the cheers of her teammates and the men’s players.
She walked away after the dunk with a massive smile, thinking, “ ‘Ooh, I finally got it.’ It was an exciting moment.”
Could the 6–1 junior join rare company with Charlotte Smith and Sylvia Crawley? In a December 1994 UNC blowout of N.C. A&T (UNC plays on the road against the Aggies this season), the 6–0 Smith threw down the only dunk in program history. Crawley dunked blindfolded in an ABL dunk contest in 1998.
A Carolina player dunking in a game might be good karma, considering both were members of UNC’s 1994 national championship team. Ustby said you could see her slam one down in a game next season.
“I’m going to work on some more leg strength, so if it’s the fourth quarter and I’ve got the opportunity, I’ve got to have the leg juice,” Ustby said.
Ustby got three-on-three experience playing with Carolina teammates Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Alexandra Zelaya in mid-May at the USA Basketball 3X Nationals in Springfield, Mass. That didn’t go well for that group of Tar Heels as the team went 0–3. But it gave Ustby valuable three-on-three experience.
“It helped me learn the game of three-on-three and the rules because it’s just a different type of game,” Ustby said. “And without having gone to Springfield, I might have been a little more hesitant. I wouldn’t be 100% sure what I was doing.”
The half-court games with a 12-second shot clock last 10 minutes or until one team scores 21 points. Players earn one point for a basket within the 3-point arc and two points for field goals shot outside the arc. After a defensive rebound, the ball has to go back outside the arc before an offensive play can begin.
Her USA team played three games per day for six days (it had one day off). Each team has four players but, of course, only three on the court at a time.
She compared it to the intensity of a Duke game with the score tied at the end of the game.
“That’s what the energy is like,” Ustby said. “Every play matters. Every possession is super-crucial. And it’s the most fatiguing 10 minutes that you will ever experience.”
The Duke analogy was interesting considering one of her USA teammates was the Blue Devils’ Celeste Taylor, who Ustby called “a great person and even better player.” Ustby said they got along well, and there was no animosity despite playing on opposite ends of an intense rivalry.
Ustby said people have told her that she always looked tired on the court during the three-on-three games, but she said there’s a reason — it’s nonstop. Since the transition from offense to defense is immediate, players must be well-conditioned and mentally prepared for the challenges of playing in the heat.
“You’re playing one-on-one defense trying to keep a girl in front of you while she’s changing directions. There’s no walking the ball up the court to call a play,” she said. “There are no moments where you can stand up on defense. It’s just continuous.”
In Santo Domingo, temperatures in the afternoon were in the mid-90s, making the ball slippery and her hands sweaty.
“It was a beautiful city,” Ustby said of Santo Domingo. “We were at a great resort that was pretty close to the ocean. There are palm trees and nice weather. It was just a really great experience. It felt like a vacation but then, at the same time, playing top-level basketball, so we got the best of both worlds.”
The sun was behind the backboard, so players were many times in the shadow of the backboard when shooting free throws. She said playing pickup games during her freshman year outside on the UNC campus gave her some experience dealing with the elements.
Unlike in those pickup games, there were referees at the three-on-three games. That didn’t matter much because Ustby said they rarely called fouls, which made for “a rougher style of basketball.” She got tripped and a bloody left knee during one game, but, of course, no foul was called.
As the five-on-five game has evolved, players are increasingly asked to be versatile enough to guard any player on the court, and that’s more pronounced in three-on-three.
“There isn’t enough time to switch back if you got switched on a guard or a post,” said Ustby, who visited another country for the second time, the first being UNC’s games last season in the Bahamas.
“You’ve got to be able to guard out on the 3-point line, keep her in front of you and contest the 3,” she said. “And then, the next possession, you’ve got to be able to guard the big post, and you have to pull around her and make sure she doesn’t get the ball. So, it requires a lot of skills.”
Ustby said that athleticism and strength are two crucial assets for a good three-on-three player. She scored 76 points playing in 15 of the 18 U.S. games, scoring an event-high eight points twice against host Dominican Republic.
On the event’s final day, Ustby’s eight points against DR came during an 11–1 run to begin a 19–8 victory. She scored six points that day in a 14–4 win over Argentina. The Americans beat Venezuela 18–17 in the last game on Taylor’s jumper at the end.
“We’re just having fun, really,’ Ustby said. “I enjoyed the girls that I was with and I enjoyed the coaches. And so it just made everything come easy. I was getting 3-pointers. I was getting pull-ups. I was getting post moves in the mid-post, finishing under the basket. And, most importantly, I was fed great passes for my teammates and they just made it easy for me.”
Ustby isn’t sure if she’ll be part of the U.S. team that plays in Romania because the roster for those games hasn’t been announced. She hopes that she’ll make that roster.
Either way, Ustby knows she’ll be an integral part of a Carolina team with aspirations to win a national championship. She’s got the stuff to help the Tar Heels pull it off.
Photos courtesy of USA Basketball