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UNC basketball star Deja Kelly is forging her own legacy

(Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deja Kelly knows what she wants and is not afraid to speak it into existence.

The University of North Carolina sophomore star has been planning out her basketball career since middle school, meticulously preparing for her collegiate campaign and eventual turn in the WNBA. For Kelly, it has never been a question of if, but rather when she will make her dreams a reality, on and off the court.

The Texas native first made waves as an emerging teenage guard out of Duncanville High School. Named to the 2020 McDonald’s All-American Team and awarded the 2020 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year, Kelly established herself as one of the best high school players in the country. With the hype came offers from a wide range of elite Division I basketball programs.

“Being a top-ten recruit comes with a lot — I had schools from all over the country recruiting me,” Kelly tells Just Women’s Sports.

“Growing up, I saw a lot of other top recruits pick a school just for their name or for what they would do for their image. With me, I was really strategic in my recruiting process, and I wanted to go to a school where I could build my own name, I could build the program up, I could set my own legacy at the school eventually and win some championships of my own, instead of going to a school that was already established.”

Courtney Banghart, who took over as head coach at UNC in 2019 after turning around Princeton’s program, played an integral role in Kelly’s decision to sign with the Tar Heels. Banghart earned Kelly’s trust during the recruiting process, telling her that together they could “be the start of something special” and bring the “program back to life.”

In her first year in Chapel Hill, Coach Banghart made good on her promise to the 5-foot-8 guard. “I came in, I had to do a lot. I had to make a real big impact from the jump,” Kelly says. “Most of the time, the ball was in my hands.”

As a freshman in 2020-21, Kelly averaged 11 points, 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 23 starts, embracing her role as lead facilitator and earning a spot on the ACC All-Freshman Team.

“I like to call myself a playmaker,” she says. “I am not just a scorer, I am not just a passer. I can do both.”

Now in her second season, Kelly is harnessing the lessons she learned as a first-year. Her game has improved in nearly every statistical category from her freshman to sophomore season, in part because of a shift in mentality and in part because she’s been given the green light to make plays from the one and two positions as the focal point of UNC’s offense. Through 15 games for the 14-2 Tar Heels, Kelly is averaging 17.6 points and 3.8 rebounds. In UNC’s win over ACC foe Clemson on Jan. 2, she notched a career-high 31 points on a season-high five 3-pointers, showcasing her evolution as a shooter.

“Individually, I am really looking at expanding and growing on my range, my 3-point range and my defense,” says Kelly, who’s shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc this season, up from 31 percent in 2020-21.

As a team, UNC is playing an exciting, fast-paced form of basketball, getting out in transition and beating teams on the break. Their game plan is dependent on getting defensive stops, an area where Kelly says she and her teammates have been locked in.

“If we keep learning and keep being dedicated to growing and not being content at where we are at right now, I think we can make a lot of noise once tournament time comes,” she says.

UNC’s only two losses this season have come against ranked opponents NC State and Notre Dame. Despite their record against top teams, Kelly says the team is not intimidated by marquee matchups, especially in the competitive ACC. Left off of the AP Top 25 preseason poll, the Tar Heels have gone undefeated at home and 4-2 in their conference to earn a No. 20 ranking in the latest AP poll.

As UNC gears up for a gauntlet to close out January — with games against Virginia (on Thursday), No. 18 Georgia Tech, No. 21 Duke and No. 4 NC State — Kelly is already thinking about March. Fifteen years have passed since UNC last made a Final Four run, a streak the sophomore is determined to rectify.

“That’s exactly what I came here to do, is to bring this team back to the Final Fours, Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, just to put more banners up in our gyms,” she says.

The 2021-22 season has been a watershed one for women’s basketball in a number of ways. Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has yet to affect UNC’s game schedule as dramatically as it has for other teams, Kelly and her teammates have had to balance increased isolation with typical student life.

“It’s definitely hard. You are basically locked in a bubble of just you and your teammates and your coaches,” says Kelly, adding that the team’s chemistry has helped them weather the challenges.

Another new, albeit positive, normal that Kelly and student-athletes have had to navigate is the NIL landscape. For the first time this season, college athletes have been able to profit off of their name, image and likeness, opening the door for lucrative partnerships and corporate deals.

Kelly has embraced opportunities off the court, signing with WME Sports for NIL and marketing representation in the fall of 2021. The partnership has given her the chance to bolster her personal image, a project the 20-year-old has worked on with her mom since she was a young hooper. She doesn’t just think about branding in the conventional sense, but also as a chance to show what she stands for. NIL, to her, is a key step toward “getting collegiate athletes what they deserve.”

“When people hear Deja Kelly, I just want them to just think of a really loving and caring basketball player who off the court is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants and is really goal-oriented,” Kelly says.

Inspired by Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kelly looks to the WNBA star’s career as a blueprint for her own. Having spoken with the Phoenix Mercury guard a few times, Kelly says she admires Diggins-Smith’s confidence and the fact she always “[keeps] it real.”

“She is a beautiful woman who carries herself as such, and she is a businesswoman, she’s a mom, a wife and a killer on the court,” Kelly says. “She knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to go and get what she wants.”

Kelly already shares in her idol’s ambition and unwavering confidence, declaring with certainty that she will play in the WNBA, something she has aspired to for as long as she can remember.

“When I have my mind set on something, I won’t stop until I get it,” she says.

Before Kelly gets too preoccupied with her professional future, she remains focused on the second half of UNC’s season, and the chance to prove that she and her team are national contenders.

Clare Brennan is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrives in DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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