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Deja Kelly, UNC basketball build on last season’s success

Deja Kelly leads the Tar Heels with 17.8 points per game. (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trailing No. 5 Iowa State by 17 points in the second quarter, the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels looked like they would finish the Phil Knight Invitational as runners-up.

Cyclones center Stephanie Soares was dominating the paint with 13 points, and the Tar Heels had made just seven field goals. Just three North Carolina players registered a point in the first half as the team shot 21.2% from the field.

In short, it was a disastrous half for the Tar Heels.

But when the game was over, those opening two quarters seemed like a distant memory. 

UNC completed a massive comeback, led by Deja Kelly, who scored 22 of her 29 points in the second half, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out four assists for her best game of the season. It was UNC’s second top-25 win in four days, coming after a victory against No. 18 Oregon on Thursday.

Expectations were high for the Tar Heels heading into the season after they reached the Sweet 16 in 2021-22 for the first time since 2015 and hung with eventual national champion South Carolina in a 69-61 loss. So far, they’re living up to the hype.

Yet their last three victories – over James Madison, Oregon and Iowa State – have all been come-from-behind wins. UNC has the grit to win in difficult situations, but do the Tar Heels have staying power?

The team, which has moved up to No. 6 in the latest AP Top 25, is 6-0, with no stumbles against lower or unranked teams and now a statement win over Iowa State.

The next few weeks will provide further opportunity for the Tar Heels to prove themselves, as they play No. 6 Indiana on Thursday and No. 22 Michigan on Dec. 20 before heading into ACC play and taking on No. 11 Virginia Tech on Jan. 1.

So far, the Tar Heels seem like the real deal. Kelly and Alyssa Ustby turned heads last season as an elite scoring duo, but the win over Oregon proved they aren’t the team’s only weapons. UNC’s starting five all finished in double-figures, with Eva Hodgson leading the way.

The transfer from William and Mary provides UNC with a reliable outside threat, making 45.5% of her attempts from long range. Hodgson came off the bench as a junior, but she’s embracing the starting role, and her point production has gone up from 9.1 ppg to 15.8. She’s also averaging 3.8 assists.

Hodgson’s offensive growth has made a difference for the Tar Heels, as Kelly and Ustby aren’t as reliable from long range as they are from inside the arc. Kennedy Todd-Williams has also provided a lift, shooting 38.5% from 3-point range. 

The long-distance shooters brings balance to the Tar Heel offense, while Kelly thrives off the bounce and Ustby posts up smaller guards and executes from the high-post. 

Defensively, the big question for the Tar Heels heading into the game with Iowa State was how they would defend 6-6 forward Soares. She has a significant height advantage over Tar Heel starting forward Anya Poole (6-2), and the tallest player UNC brings off the bench is 6-4 redshirt freshman Teonni Key, who plays just 10.3 minutes per game. 

But UNC handled Iowa State by limiting the rest of the Cyclones. Soares finished with 19 points, and Ashley Joens had 18, but the rest of the squad was held to single-digits. North Carolina was also aggressive in its defensive attack, forcing 17 turnovers. 

Teams with multiple post threats or more productive guards are the next challenge for the Tar Heels. Thursday’s matchup with Indiana could be telling, as the Hoosiers have the second-most efficient big in the country in Mackenzie Holmes, who is shooting 76.6% and averaging 20 points per game. 

The Hoosiers will likely be missing Grace Berger (10.3 points per game) who was injured against Auburn on Friday – no update has been provided yet – but they have several other scoring weapons. Sara Scalia, Yarden Garzon and Sydney Parrish all score at least 10 points per game, and Chloe Moore-McNeil sits at 9.7 per game.

If UNC can top Indiana, then it will get that much closer to cementing its status as one of college basketball’s top teams. A difficult ACC slate will also allow the Tar Heels to showcase their talents and answer any lingering questions about their potential to make a deep run in March.