By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — After a challenging 22 days between home games with three ranked opponents, No. 7 North Carolina returned to Carmichael Arena and dominated three overmatched non-conference opponents.
The Tar Heels (9–1) trailed for 18 seconds and forced 58 turnovers in the three games as they tuned up before the schedule gets significantly more challenging. With the sort of dynamic guard play they got from Deja Kelly and Eva Hodgson on Friday, they’ll be more than up for the task.
UNC scored the game’s first seven points and rolled from there to finish the homestand with an 89–47 victory over USC Upstate (3–7), shooting a season-high 60.7%. The Tar Heels had a height advantage at every position (winning the rebounding battle 42–25) over the Spartans, who were playing their third game in five days.
Three of Carolina’s next five opponents are ranked — No. 19 Michigan (7 p.m. Tuesday in Charlotte), No. 6 Virginia Tech and No. 5 Notre Dame — and it also faces 11–1 Florida State (which is receiving poll votes).
“It’s exciting,” said Hodgson, who was all over the court with 16 points, two 3-pointers, a season-high four steals and four assists in 27 minutes. “That’s why we came here: to play against top-20 teams and to be a top-20 team. So, for us, this is what it’s about, and we’re just excited to get rolling.”
Kelly has played well all season running the offense, with more ballhandling responsibility after the departure of point guard Carlie Littlefield. Her floor play has been consistent, but her shot hasn’t always been. That changed Friday when she poured in an efficient 20 points in 27 minutes.
“I think Deja’s been playing really well all season,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart, adding that it was a process for Kelly to figure things out after taking over for Littlefield at point. “To be able to distribute play and to create looks for teammates when she’s not shooting as well is a sign of a really good player — a really good offensive player who can impact the game without scoring.”
Kelly tied her season-high with eight field goals. She only needed 11 shots to get them after needing 25 shots to combine for eight in the previous two games. Kelly said it was all about keeping her confidence.
“I know I haven’t been shooting the greatest, so just not letting that kind of dictate any future games, just knowing I’m gonna play my game and the shots are going to fall eventually,” Kelly said. “Tonight they did.”
Kelly didn’t force anything on offense, as her points came in the natural flow of the offense.
Hodgson, who was a team-high +36 (10 better than anybody else), keeps having an impact on the game in so many ways with her gritty play.
“Eva, she just gets better,” Banghart said. “She’s better defensively than she was, her leadership on floor is super-helpful. Shoots the ball more shot-ready, so she was great. That kid is a competitor.”
Freshman Paulina Paris pitched in a career-high 15 points and three 3-pointers off the bench. Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams both scored nine, with Ustby adding 11 rebounds, a season-high five assists and three steals and Todd Williams three assists and two steals. Center Anya Poole collected eight points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in 22 minutes.
Carolina got a season-high 27 bench points for the second consecutive game. There were assists on 20 of UNC’s 37 field goals, and the Tar Heels forced 21 turnovers.
Although the defense wasn’t as sharp at times against USC Upstate, Carolina created plenty of offense by scoring 23 points off of 22 turnovers.
Hodgson typified that intensity when she stole two consecutive baseline inbounds passes to produce a layup for her and a layup for Kelly, capping a 17–5 run to push the Heels’ lead to 23 before leading 45–22 at halftime.
That came after a timeout when Banghart urged her players to pick up the ball sooner.
“That was one of our goals as guards — to try to pick it up as soon as you can to help everybody else to get settled,” said Hodgson, who nearly had a third consecutive steal after the Kelly layup. “For me, it was just seeing an opportunity. Why not put a little pressure on her? … It was good for us. We needed the momentum, and it kind of shifted our mindset a little bit, which was good.”
Hodgson knows Carolina will need more consistent defense against tougher opponents in the coming games.
“Defense is huge for us,” she said. “It’s what fuels our offense, and to be able to get our hands in the passing gaps and to be able to be in the right positions and to make them pick up the ball and make tough passes.
“That’s what we need to do in order for us to get the buckets that we want,” Hodgson said. “Honestly, our defense kind of came in waves tonight. There were really good moments where we could get a lot of steals and there were other moments where we weren’t in the right position. So we’re still piecing it together.”
Kelly agreed, saying that the Heels “have to tighten up on the defensive end” against better competition.
“We want to be known as the team that is annoying defensively, just like we were last year.”Carolina guard Deja Kelly
“I think offensively, we’re moving a lot better,” she said. “We’re moving our bodies as well as the ball a lot better. So, we’re able to get each other really good looks offensively. So I don’t think we’re too worried about that. But defensively, just us picking up our intensity a little bit, knowing that these teams are going to try to come and punch us first. And we want to be known as the team that is annoying defensively, just like we were last year.”
One of the best developments on the night was the breakout game for Paris, a freshman who went from shooting 5 for 23 in the previous six games to 6 of 9 against USC Upstate.
“It actually felt really great,” Paris said. “These last few games have been a struggle, so just to be able to shoot well, that meant a lot to me and my teammates. That helped me; it was awesome. It’s been hard at times, but my teammates helped me and just pushed me and guided me along the way.”
Kelly, a junior, knows all too well about freshman struggles and can relate to what Paris has gone through this season.
“It was great to see her kind of get into her rhythm. I know it’s not easy; I was there once,” Kelly said. “I know it’s good for her to see the ball go into the hoop. So, I’m glad that she got that confidence and was able to build it in games like these especially, so when she comes off the bench in bigger games, she’s ready to contribute.”
Banghart played a lot of players and experimented with contrasting lineups. She went small at times with Kelly, Hodgson and Paris on the court. She deployed two post players — between Anya Poole, Teonni Key and Alexandra Zelaya — and, at times, with Todd-Williams at the two spot.
“We wanted to make sure that you can play two bigs with mobility. We wanted to make sure that we could play three smalls and be shot-ready,” Banghart said. “We use these games to help us figure out where we can be good and what we can do to change the tempo of these games. We’ve had a good zone presence tonight. These guys give us a lot of options.”
The Tar Heels went on a 15–4 run to end the first quarter with a 25–12 lead on a Kelly jumper with five seconds left. Carolina took a 66–37 lead into the final quarter, and a Kelly 3-point play pushed the lead to 32 with 5:03 left. UNC scored seven consecutive fourth-quarter points in less than a minute and shot 71.4% in the final quarter.
Guard Trinity Johnson led USC Upstate with 13 points.
“[UNC] does a really good job in terms of getting downhill and spreading the floor consistently,” USC Upstate coach Jason Williams told The Associated Press. “The foul count was tremendous on their part because our kids were battling. And being able to go and fight and compete, that’s all I can really ask for my group.”
NOTES — Michigan (9–1; NET ranking of 21), which lost at home 71–68 to Toledo on Dec. 8, faces Appalachian State at noon Saturday. Fifth-year 6–3 forward Emily Kiser leads Michigan in scoring (19.4 points per game) and rebounding (7.4), with sophomore 6–0 guard Laila Phelia (17.3 scoring average) making 48.5% of her 3-point attempts. … UNC is 3–0 against USC Upstate, with an 80–40 win exactly seven years earlier and a 91–34 victory on Nov. 13, 2011. … The 60.7% shooting was the best for Carolina since shooting 63.7% on Dec. 16, 2013, when the Tar Heels put up a school-record point total in a 124–41 victory over New Orleans. … Todd-Williams and Kelly combined to go 6 of 8 from the free-throw line, but Ustby and Key combined to go 1 of 8. No other Tar Heels attempted free throws. … After scoring a season-high 12 3-pointers in Sunday’s 99-67 win over Wofford, UNC notched eight against USC Upstate, its second-highest total of the season. … Key blocked three shots for the second time this season (also against Iowa State). Destiny Adams blocked two shots for the fifth time in the last six games. … It was Kelly’s first game this season with more turnovers (3) than assists (2). … It was the second time this season (also in the 93–25 win over South Carolina State) that the Tar Heels didn’t give up a second-chance point. … The Tar Heels’ 23 points off turnovers, 24 fast-break points and 48 inside points were each second only to the totals of 29, 28 and 50 against South Carolina State. … USC Upstate shot 29.3% from the floor, the third-lowest by a UNC opponent this season (15.2% by South Carolina State and 25% against TCU). … Hodgson, the only Carolina player with at least one 3-pointer in each game, didn’t attempt a free throw but came into the game third among active Division I players in career free-throw percentage at 88.2%. … Carolina returns home on Dec. 29 for its ACC opener against Florida State.
UNC 89, USC Upstate 47
UNC lineup combinations
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 21 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 12 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||No. 19 |
|Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 11 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||No. 22 N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 9 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||7 p.m.||Syracuse||Syracuse||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|12||Sunday||Noon||Boston College||Home||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|16||Thursday||8 p.m.||No. 22 N.C. State||Raleigh||ACCN|
|19||Sunday||4 p.m.||Wake Forest||Home||ACCN|
|23||Thursday||8 p.m.||No. 11 |
|26||Sunday||Noon||No. 9 Duke||Durham||RSNs|
|1–5||Wednesday–Sunday||TBA||TBA||Greensboro||ACCN Wed.-Sat.; final on ESPN or ESPN2|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications