In ordinary circumstances, the UNC Tar Heels beating a ranked opponent by more than 20 points would be a headline in and of itself. In somewhat less than ordinary circumstances, Maria Gakdeng tying her career high with 22 points would have been the big story, really underlining how huge it’s been for Courtney Banghart’s team to have a center with legitimate size.
This was no ordinary night. In fact, it was nothing short of historic, as Alyssa Ustby, who’s been flirting with the accomplishment her whole career, was absolutely all over the floor against the Syracuse Orange en route to the first triple-double in the history of UNC women’s basketball, with 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. The result of the game seemed almost secondary, especially as the Heels opened up the second half on an extended 19-4 run and didn’t look back as they cruised to a 75-51 victory against the 25th-ranked Orange.
Ustby made her mark on the game early, scoring the game’s first points on a layup before playing a connective role for the rest of the half. Through finding soft areas in the Syracuse defense, she handed out 5 assists in the first quarter and 9 for the first half, 7 of them going to Gakdeng under the basket. Speaking of Gakdeng, she had one of her best games as a Tar Heel, shooting 9/12 from the floor for her 22 points to go with 7 rebounds of her own. Against a smaller Syracuse frontline, she was able to dominate the low post and eliminate the Orange’s rebounding threats so that when she didn’t grab the rebound herself, somebody like Ustby (mostly Ustby) could come in and get their hands on it.
Despite their efforts and able support from their teammates, the Heels weren’t really able to pull away from the Orange in the first half, maintaining a lead the whole time but leaving room for Cuse to pull back. Felisha Legette-Jack’s squad, led by star Dyaisha Fair, ended the first half on a 7-0 run to pull the score to 30-32 in favor of the home team in Carmichael. The Heels did a great job on Fair overall, holding her to 3/9 shooting in the first half and 7/22 for the game, but their own bout of offensive slowness mitigated their defensive efforts.
All that was quickly forgotten as the second half begun. Ustby got her 10th assist on a fast break layup by Deja Kelly to spark a 10-4 run over the first 3 and a half minutes of the third quarter, then capped off another 9-0 run over the next three minutes with a fast break layup of her own to give her 9 points to go with those 10 assists and 10 rebounds to boot. The Heels were up 51-34, showing no signs of showing down, especially with excitement in the building mounting with Ustby a point away from history. She got it on a free throw a couple of minutes later, meaning that her triple-double actually happened in less than three quarters. Meanwhile, the rest of the team was finding a groove as well. Ustby’s getting the shine because she deserves it, but even beyond Gakdeng’s career night, Lexi Donarski shot 4/6 from beyond the arc to add 14 points to go with the majority of the defensive effort on Fair. She was helped on Fair by Indya Nivar, who had one of her best floor games as a Tar Heel with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block. And Deja Kelly, despite struggling from the floor and finishing with just 7 points on 15 attempted shots, ran the offense more smoothly than we’ve seen it this season, finishing with 4 assists and a +/- of 22 despite her offensive foibles.
The Heels have a tough stretch coming up, with two more ranked opponents in Notre Dame and Florida State on the way, and they’ll be on the road for these matchups. Getting a historic performance amidst arguably the team’s best holistic performance of the season is a great way to kick it off.