UNC women’s basketball survives St. John’s in 61-59 first-round NCAA Tournament win

With its first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 11 St. John’s tied and 6.5 seconds remaining, No. 6 North Carolina put the ball in Deja Kelly’s hands — a familiar sight.

The junior guard drove around a screen and, against three defenders, lofted a layup while being fouled. The ball swished through the hoop, and the Kelly knocked down the free throw. The Red Storm was unable to respond in the 2.3 seconds remaining.

Kelly finished with 18 points as the Tar Heels escaped upset-minded St. John’s for a 61-59 victory, advancing to Monday’s second round against No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.

Kelly fouled Red Storm forward Danielle Patterson while Patterson hoisted a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds on the clock, but she missed the first two of the three free throws. UNC got the ball into Kelly on the next possession, and the buzzer sounded before St. John’s could foul.

The win is the third in the NCAA Tournament for UNC (22-10) under fourth-year head coach Courtney Banghart.

Kelly shot 7-of-16 from the floor and added four rebounds and two assists. Kennedy Todd-Williams added 14 points and seven boards, and Alyssa Ustby — on her 21st birthday — had 13 points, four rebounds and two assists.

St. John’s (23-9) was led by Jayla Everett, a familiar foe for the Tar Heels from her playing days in the ACC with Pittsburgh. Everett scored 17 points in the victory, while Patterson had 13.

The Tar Heels nearly led wire-to-wire, jumping out to a 12-3 lead to open the game and taking a nine-point lead into halftime. But in the fourth quarter, after Ustby fouled out with 6:15 to play, UNC endured a scoring drought of more than three-and-a-half minutes, during which the Red Storm rattled off a 6-0 run to take a four-point lead.

Kelly responded for the Heels by making a free throw to end the drought, then sinking a lay-up in traffic. Then, Paulina Paris connected on a fast break lay-up while being fouled to tie the game up for UNC with 1:59 left to play. Paris’ points late in the fourth quarter were the first points scored in the game by a UNC bench player.

It was an eventful birthday for Ustby as she passed the 1,000 career-points-scored milestone in the third quarter, using some nifty post moves in the to score in the paint over two defenders. She is the 40th player in program history to join the exclusive club. Kelly passed the mark in January.

Key for UNC was its ability to outscore St. John’s in the paint, 30-22. The Tar Heels also limited turnovers, coughing up possession 13 times compared to 15 from the Red Storm. UNC shot 42.1% from the floor while St. John’s made 37.5% of its shots. Those were the razor-thin margins by which the game was decided.