UNC starters return but Heels lose heartbreaker to Hokies on buzzer-beater

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — All of North Carolina’s starters are back, and the No. 22 Tar Heels showed Thursday that they’re loaded for a big late-season run. But that nearly full roster ran up against one of the hottest teams in the country.

With junior wing Alyssa Ustby and guard Eva Hodgson back, UNC battled No. 9 Virginia Tech well all night before losing a heartbreaker, 61–59, as the Hokies won their seventh game in a row and ninth in the last 10 games.

There was plenty of emotion after the game as Carolina lamented missed chances and a young mistake at the end.

In a tie game, Carolina had a foul to give when the Hokies threw the ball inbounds with 2.1 seconds left. After coming off a Georgia Amoore screen, Elizabeth Kitley wasn’t fouled, and was wide open as she sank a buzzer-beating, turn-around 15-foot jumper from the left wing.

“That’s a shot I think I’m really confident in; my teammates are confident in it for me,” Kitley said. “It felt good.”

The plan after the timeout was for UNC to foul quickly and switch on all screens. But with UNC redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson guarding Amoore, Amoore set a screen on UNC’s Anya Poole. McPherson stayed with Amoore instead of switching, and Poole couldn’t scramble to close out on Kitley in time.

“She’s heartbroken about it,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of McPherson. “She knows she was supposed to switch. She knows that we had a foul to give. She knows it. She’s bummed about it.

“I reminded her that this is how quickly things happen in college, and she’s a huge piece of who we are and the game will break your heart if you let it,” Banghart said. “You can hurt for a moment, but we’ve got to look forward. That’s a life skill.”

An 8–2 Hokies run gave them a 55–51 lead on a Kitley layup with 2:19 left, but McPherson’s 3 after a timeout cut it to one with 1:50 left. Cayla King and Kelly traded jumpers to leave Tech up 57–56 with 59.4 seconds left.

On a clearout, UNC Kelly scored on a short, driving jumper with 12.2 seconds. Tech retook the lead on two King free throws with 9.1 seconds left before Ustby split a pair of free throws with 2.1 seconds left to tie it.

Banghart said she was late getting to the press conference because she was talking to Ustby, who was emotional after contributing nine points and six rebounds but turning the ball over five times.

“Alyssa is heartbroken,” Banghart said. “She can’t stand the five turnovers, all the things, and she just wants to be better for me and for us.”

Carolina (19–9, 10–7 ACC) welcomed the return of Ustby’s rebounding clout, and she got the Heels more second shots. But Virginia Tech had the better of the board battle (42–28) most of the night, which made a big difference.

The combination of Deja Kelly (18 points, four rebounds and six assists) and Kennedy Todd-Williams (13 points, seven rebounds), which was the glue that held the team together without Ustby, had another good night but the Tar Heels came one play short.

Alyssa Ustby returned to the lineup for Carolina, which went 2-3 in her absence.

“I liked the way we played; I liked our energy throughout the game,” Kelly said. “There were just some crucial possessions throughout the game that we’re gonna go back and watch and be sick to our stomach. So, that’s what it comes down to whenever we play Virginia Tech — possession games.”

While Kelly liked a lot about how the team played, she didn’t like the team getting only eight assists and says there are plenty of areas in which the Tar Heels will need improvement if they make a big run in March.

“Communication is our biggest downfall now,” Kelly said. “I think we need to probably move the ball a little better.”

Ustby returned from a lower-body injury and started after UNC went 2–3 without her. Hodgson (two points), who missed eight games with an upper-body injury, started her senior night game, as did reserve center Malu Tshitenge (two points, two rebounds).

“They bring incredible pieces to this group,” Todd-Williams said. “Not only what they bring on the court, but like off the court, just that chemistry having them back. It just feels good to have them back. They bring so much to us.”

This was only the first game this season with Carolina’s usual starters and redshirt freshmen McPherson and Teonni Key, all available, although Key didn’t play.  

“They’re all super close games, two really good teams, a heavyweight fight,” Banghart said of the battles with Virginia Tech after the Hokies won 68–65 on New Year’s Day in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech (23–4, 13–4) got 21 points from Kitley, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer, and 20 from Kayana Taylor. The Hokies shot 45.3%, the best shooting by a UNC opponent in ACC play.

“To be able to get a win like this and have a storybook ending with a winning shot but also becoming the all-time leading scorer … that’s pretty cool,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said.

UNC played an excellent defensive game, forcing the Hokies into a season-high 20 turnovers. The pesky defense from Todd-Williams and McPherson held Amoore to 10 points and 2 of 10 shooting from 3-point range.

“We scouted her really well, and then other guys kind of started hurting us,” Todd-Williams said. “Not giving her daylight was our key, and I think we did a really good job at that as a whole. So I thought it was a good matchup.”

Carolina kept rolling in big bodies to be physical with Kitley, including Tshitenge, Alexandra Zelaya and Destiny Adams. But the reigning ACC player of the year was too much for UNC in the end.

“The biggest thing is she has a really high release,” Banghart said. “She’s like the women’s version of Dirk Nowitzki. She’s just really hard to guard because you can’t get it up top. When she catches it —  whether it’s 10 feet, 15 feet out — once she has that, you can’t do anything about it. You’ve got to force her with physicality to catch it a little bit further away. That also keeps her off the offensive glass. Overall, we did a decent job on her. It’s a really tough kid to guard.”

Ustby needed just 2½ minutes to score. Hodgson had a steal and Tshitenge played tough defense on Kitley as Carolina scored the game’s first eight points. A layup from Traylor finally got the Hokies a basket with 4:33 left in the first quarter.

The Heels then went on an 8–2 run to go up by 10 before Amoore’s first basket of the game, a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left in the first quarter, cut UNC’s lead to 16–9 after one quarter.

“I think we were really active in the first quarter and we talked really well on screens and what we had to do on screens,” Kelly said. “And I think we just had a lack of communication from the second quarter on. But they’re also a really good team. They were bound to make some shots eventually.”


A 13–6 Hokies run gave them a brief lead on a Kitley jumper with 2:10 left in the first half. A Paulina Paris 3-pointer began a 6–2 Carolina run to end the half as the Heels led 32–28 after shooting 46.7%. The Hokies went from shooting 22.2% in the first quarter to 53.3% in the second quarter.

UNC didn’t get any second-chance points until a Tshitenge follow shot early in the second half as the Hokies dominated rebounding 24–16 in the first half.

Two Traylor 3-pointers sparked a 9–0 Tech run to give the Hokies a 40–36 lead with 3:41 left in the third quarter. McPherson scored four points in a 9–0 UNC run to end the quarter. Her steal and layup gave Carolina a 45–42 lead after three quarters.

NOTES — Carolina finishes the regular season at No. 11 Duke at noon Sunday (RSNs). The Blue Devils (24–4, 14–3), who lost the first meeting on Jan. 19 in Chapel Hill 61–56, beat N.C. State 77–62 at home on Thursday night. … It was Tshitenge’s first start since starting 11 times two seasons ago. … Hodgson was riding an exercise bike during one stretch when she was out of the game. … Virginia Tech was held to nine first-quarter points, its first single-digit quarter since scoring eight in a 66–55 loss at Duke on Jan. 26. … Armando Bacot and RJ Davis were at the game. … UNC lost its fourth consecutive game to the Hokies, but still lead the series 21–14. … Carolina is locked into either a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament, which means the Tar Heels will play a second-round game at either 6 p.m. or 8:30 Thursday night.

No. 9 Virginia Tech 61, No. 22 UNC 59

ACC standings

No. 10 Notre Dame15–324–4
No. 11 Duke14–424–5
No. 9 Virginia Tech14–424–4
No. 23 Florida State12–623–8
No. 22 North Carolina11–720–9
N.C. State9–919–10
Boston College5–1315–16
Wake Forest5–1314–15
Georgia Tech4–1413–16

Thursday’s results
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
Sunday’s results
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

(current ranking)
9WednesdayW, 91–59Jackson StateHome1–0
12SaturdayW, 75–48TCUHome2–0
16WednesdayW, 93–25South Carolina StateHome3–0
20SundayW, 76–65James MadisonHarrisonburg, Va.4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 85–79OregonPortland5–0
27SundayW, 73–64No. 17 Iowa State Portland6–0
DecemberACC/Big Ten Challenge
1ThursdayL, 87–63No. 2 IndianaBloomington, Ind.6–1
7WednesdayW, 64–42UNCWHome7–1
11SundayW, 99–67WoffordHome8–1
16FridayW, 89–47USC UpstateHome9–1
Jumpman Invitational
20TuesdayL, 76–68No. 18 MichiganCharlotte9–2
ACC season begins
29ThursdayL, 78–71Florida StateHome9–3, 0–1 ACC
1SundayL, 68–65No. 4
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.9–4, 0–2 ACC
5ThursdayL, 62–58MiamiCoral Gables, Fla.9–5, 0–3 ACC
8SundayW, 60–50No. 10
Notre Dame
1–3 ACC
12ThursdayW, 70–59VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.11–5,
2–3 ACC
15SundayW, 56–47N.C. StateHome12–5,
3–3 ACC
19ThursdayW, 61–56No. 13 DukeHome13–5,
4–3 ACC
22SundayW, 70–57Georgia TechHome14–5,
5–3 ACC
26ThursdayW, 72–57PittsburghPittsburgh15–5,
6–3 ACC
29SundayW, 69–58ClemsonClemson16–5,
7–3 ACC
2ThursdayW, 73–62VirginiaHome17–5,
8–3 ACC
5SundayL, 62–55LouisvilleLouisville17–6,
8–4 ACC
9ThursdayL, 75–67SyracuseSyracuse17–7,
8–5 ACC
12SundayW, 73–55Boston CollegeHome18–7,
9–5 ACC
16ThursdayL, 77–66, OTN.C. StateRaleigh18–8,
9–6 ACC
19SundayW, 71–58Wake ForestHome19–8,
10–6 ACC
23ThursdayL, 61–59No. 4
Virginia Tech
10–7 ACC
26SundayW, 45–41No. 13 DukeDurham20–9,
10–8 ACC
MarchACC Tournament
2ThursdayW, 68–58Clemson Greensboro21–9
3FridayL, 44–40No. 13 Duke Greensboro21–10
NCAA tournament
18SaturdayW, 61–59 St. John’sColumbus, Ohio22–10
20MondayL, 71–69No. 12 Ohio State Columbus, Ohio22–11

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s