By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — It wasn’t quite to the level of the Michael Jordan flu game, but Carolina junior Alyssa Ustby went from feeling sick and on an IV to being a key player down the stretch, making it a day to remember.
She scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half and made the No. 17 Tar Heels’ offense productive down the stretch. UNC held on for a 61–56 victory Thursday over No. 13 Duke before a passionate crowd of 5,003 at Carmichael Arena for its fourth consecutive win and an NCAA-high fifth over a ranked team.
The third consecutive win over Duke (16–2, 6–1 ACC) snapped the Blue Devils’ 11-game win streak and delivered their first ACC loss of the season before the largest student turnout in program history of about 1,500.
It’s the first time in program history that the Tar Heels (13–5, 4–3) have beaten a ranked N.C. State team and ranked Duke team in successive games.
“I got a text first thing in the morning, and I was like, ‘oh, God’ ,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said about hearing that Ustby wasn’t feeling well. “Then I saw her a couple of hours later, and I was like, ‘we’re all right.’ ”
Ustby felt a little sick Thursday morning but tested negative for COVID-19 and strep, and there was no way she would miss the game.
“There was just no option for me missing out on an opportunity to beat Duke and an opportunity to play with my teammates,” said Ustby, who quickly shifted from not only feeling well but playing well, collecting five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks. “Definitely my version of a flu game, just trying to get as many assists, steals, being active, just the things that I do every day. And that’s the stuff I’m going to bring whether I had the flu or not.”
She said she didn’t feel winded and “could have run for days.”
Deja Kelly scored 10 of her team-high 19 points in the fourth quarter and blew a kiss toward Duke’s Celeste Taylor after hitting a jumper with 38 seconds left.
“I think that it was a very timely shot, and she was guarding me kind of tight, so it was a message — a friendly one,” Kelly said. “We all knew how big this game was for us, for Carolina fans, and we just wanted to give our fans a show.”
Kennedy Todd-Williams, who finished with 13 points before fouling out, hit a huge corner 3-pointer with 1:48 left.
Duke cut the lead to three points on a Shayeann Day-Wilson 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and then again on a Day-Wilson free throw with five seconds left. However, Eva Hodgson responded each time by sinking two free throws to put the game away, the final two with two seconds left.
After being outrebounded by their first five ACC opponents, Carolina outrebounded State, and Duke only had a 31–29 edge.
“The defensive key was activity,” Banghart said. “When the five of us play with activity, it leads to shots that they don’t want to take out of rhythm, and then we can have a better job tracking rebounds. And it’s got to be a collective effort.”
The Tar Heels’ post players — Anya Poole, Destiny Adams and Alexandra Zelaya — combined to hold Duke center Kennedy Brown to two points in 31 minutes.
“That kind of speaks for itself in terms of the activity that our posts gave. And they did their job. And then everybody else around them did theirs,” Banghart said.
Carolina jump-started its offense by shooting 75% in the second half, including making 9 of 10 third-quarter shots, after shooting 28% in the first half with only three second-quarter field goals.
“All their players presented big challenges for us,” said Duke coach Kara Lawson, whose team was outscored 30–16 inside. “They have great size, great scoring ability and aggressive. I thought they were aggressive attacking the paint, and certainly making making shots. We did not do as good keeping them out of the paint, taking layups away. They got probably more than we would have liked in the paint.”
The big difference in the second half was the halftime adjustments, which accounted for Duke switching on screens during some possessions but not switching on other possessions.
“We really talked about spacing them out and using Alyssa as either a screen-and-roller or a spacer, depending on how they were defending it, which I think really opened up their eyes to what they needed,” Banghart said. “The ball moved a little bit better, and we made more shots because of it.”
Ustby said that “making everybody’s job a little bit easier” is the role she likes to fill. She did that well.
“I think my role was just making sure that Duke’s defense knew that I was making a presence everywhere I was, whether I was setting a contact ball screen, rolling down to the block or posting somebody,” Ustby said.
The Tar Heels have come a long way, from losing four consecutive games and starting the ACC season 0–3, to four successive league wins that have them two games out of first place.
UNC could have easily won the last three games of the losing streak (a 78–71 loss to Florida State, a 68–65 loss at then-No. 7 Virginia Tech and a 62–58 loss at Miami) but couldn’t figure out a way. The Tar Heels still haven’t been shooting consistently, but they’re winning.
“I think just our mentality as a team, as a group,” Kelly said. “We’re starting to understand what it really takes. We know in the ACC it’s hard to win. But we also know that those are three games that we should have and could have won.
“So really just looking inward, and really focusing on what we do best individually and collectively and just making sure that shows on the court,” Kelly said. “We’ve had good practices together, but then really having a translate to the game. And I think that’s really been what’s happening.”
Carolina scored the game’s first 10 points. It would have had a bigger lead if it didn’t go without a field goal for nearly the last six minutes of the first quarter before a Kelly jumper with seven seconds left. That gave UNC a 12–5 lead heading into the second quarter.
“We wanted them on their heels right away,” Banghart said. “We didn’t want to walk into this game. And they did that, and then [Duke] started, like any good team, to kind of find their way and chip back. And then in the third, going into the fourth, just a group putting their heads together and saying, ‘it’s go time.’ “
Duke finally came to life in the second quarter.
Day-Wilson’s jumper — which gave her five consecutive points — capped a 9–2 Blue Devils run to tie it at 16 with 3:38 left in the first half. Day-Wilson’s 3-pointer after a Kelly jumper gave Duke a brief lead before a Kelly 3-pointer. A layup by Duke’s Vanessa de Jesus knotted the score at 21 heading into halftime.
Duke went up by three with a 7–0 run but UNC responded with a 15–3 run to go up 40–31 after three quarters.
Paulina Paris may only be a freshman, but she continues to show the poise to give the Tar Heels a spark just when they need it. After Duke tied it on an Elizabeth Balogun 3-pointer with 4:44 left in the third quarter, Paris weaved through traffic twice for layups, then assisted on an Ustby inside bucket, and Carolina led the rest of the way.
Lawson said she didn’t talk about the rivalry much with her team before the game.
“Obviously, a road game is hard to win. We’re playing a great team,” said Lawson, who had several transfers who were playing UNC for the first time. “So just that in itself, trying to beat a great team on the road, is hard enough. I don’t think you have to add other things to it.”
Day-Wilson led Duke with 24 points and Reigan Richardson added 12.
NOTES — After two consecutive games against ranked teams, UNC faces two teams toward the bottom of the ACC. The Tar Heels play at home at 4 p.m. Sunday (ACC Network) against Georgia Tech and on the road at 6 p.m. next Thursday at Pittsburgh (ESPN3). The Yellow Jackets (9–9, 0–7) snapped a six-game losing streak with a 69–57 home win Thursday against Syracuse. The Panthers (7–11, 0–7) have lost six in a row after Thursday’s 69–62 home loss to Virginia Tech. … Duke was UNC’s ninth opponent with a current NET ranking of 22 or higher. … ACC commissioner Jim Phillips was at the game. … There were three replay reviews. … UNC moved to 5–3 against ranked teams, including 3–1 against ranked ACC teams and 3–0 against ranked teams at home. … Carolina has won three in a row against Duke after the Blue Devils had won the previous five and 12 of the previous 13. … UNC leads the series 53–51 and is 30–16 against Duke at Carmichael Arena. … Carolina has held two consecutive opponents to single-digit first-quarter points. State could only score nine and Duke scored just five.
No. 17 UNC 61, No. 13 Duke 56
|No. 10 Notre Dame||15–3||24–4|
|No. 11 Duke||14–4||24–5|
|No. 9 Virginia Tech||14–4||24–4|
|No. 23 Florida State||12–6||23–8|
|No. 22 North Carolina||11–7||20–9|
No. 9 Virginia Tech 61, No. 22 North Carolina 59
No. 10 Notre Dame 76, Georgia Tech 53
No. 23 Florida State 61, Wake Forest 60
Syracuse 85, Pittsburgh 55
Louisville 71, Miami 50
Clemson 79, Virginia 69
No. 11 Duke 77, N.C. State 62
No. 22 North Carolina 45, No. 11 Duke 41
No. 10 Notre Dame 68, Louisville, noon, ESPN3
Miami 84, Virginia 75
Boston College 73, Wake Forest 63
Clemson 74, No. 23 Florida State 61
N.C. State 68, Pittsburgh at 63
No. 9 Virginia Tech 65, Georgia Tech 52
End of regular season
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. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|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||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 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||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications