CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Alyssa Ustby and her North Carolina teammates heeded their coach's call for a performance worthy of playing in a long-running rivalry.
It was good enough to give the Tar Heels another upset win against No. 4 North Carolina State, too.
The freshman had season-highs of 20 points and 12 rebounds to help the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 76-69 on Sunday, marking the third straight season UNC has upended a top-10 N.C. State team.
“I just challenged them from the beginning that these rivalry games are a sacred part of sports,” second-year coach Courtney Banghart said, adding: “You have to honor that with your energy, and they did that.”
The Tar Heels (9-8, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) had won just one game since shortly before Christmas. And they had made just 30% of their 3-pointers all season. Yet they hit a season-best 11 3s on Sunday, including several big ones down the stretch after blowing a 12-point second-half lead against a team coming off a win at No. 1 Louisville.
Elissa Cunane scored 14 points to lead the Wolfpack (12-2, 7-2), though she was limited after halftime by foul trouble before fouling out with 1:36 left. And N.C. State shot the ball poorly until well into the third quarter after UNC had gained confidence early.
“We knew it would be a dangerous game,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have an answer.”
N.C. State regrouped with a 13-0 run to get back in it and lead 52-49 entering the final quarter. But the Tar Heels responded with their own push to go ahead for good, starting with freshman Kennedy Todd-Williams’ 3-pointer near the 9-minute mark.
UNC went on to hit 5 of 7 3s in that final period, including Stephanie Watts hitting one that made it 69-62 with 2:11 left. N.C. State got no closer than four the rest of the way.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack's 74-60 win against the Cardinals on Monday followed a 54-46 win at then-No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 3. That made N.C. State just the third Division I women's team in the last 20 seasons to have two wins against a No. 1-ranked team in the same season — and the only one to earn both on the road. And it gave N.C. State at least a claim to the top spot in Monday's next poll. Yet the Wolfpack stumbled once again against the rival Tar Heels, shooting 39% and making 4 of 19 3-pointers.
“We’re not playing like a great team right now,” Moore said. “And we’re definitely not sending a message that we're unbeatable or anything like that.”
UNC: The Tar Heels had managed just one win against Notre Dame since beating Wake Forest on Dec. 20. That stretch included six losses as well as two cancellations in what has been a difficult year. This one is sure to help ease a bit of that frustration.
“We came out with with energy right away,” said Watts, who had 17 points. “And I think when don't let teams get off to a great start and let the basket start looking really big from the jump, I think that's big.”
Ustby stood out as a perfect example of the Tar Heels' stepped-up play.
The 6-foot-1 guard came in averaging 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds while making just 6 of 23 3-pointers, with no more than two in any game. But she went 4 for 4 from behind the arc Sunday.
Ustby also got on the glass, scoring on a stickback to make it 66-60 before snagging another offensive board and feeding Watts for her huge late 3.
She finished with a season-high five assists as well.
“I think it started with just winning the paint and kicking to an extra teammate, and just playing with confidence was a big thing,” Ustby said. “I felt like a lot of our perimeter players really stepped up tonight with that confidence.”
N.C. State: Clemson visits the Wolfpack on Thursday.
UNC: The Tar Heels' game at Boston College for Thursday has been postponed, meaning UNC's next scheduled game comes next Sunday at Pittsburgh.
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