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No. 24 UNC, lurking as ACC contender, takes on Syracuse team that already has key win

The UNC Tar Heels are ranked in the AP poll and are a Top 3 team in the NET rankings. Just how good can they be? They take on a Syracuse Orange team that is also hoping to make noise in the ACC after an impressive win over Ohio State.

NCAA Womens Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse
Alyssa Ustby (center)
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 24 UNC Tar Heels barely avoided a loss to the BC Eagles on Dec. 19 and have been able to remain undefeated and in the Top 3 in the NET rankings. Five ACC teams are ranked ahead of them, but they are lurking as a potential contender who could hang with any of those five teams.

When they entered the rankings on Dec. 13, the Tar Heels were earning a spot in the Top 25 for the first time since Nov. 3, 2015. UNC is a proud program that won a national championship in 1994, but hasn’t been really good since three-straight trips to at least the second round from 2013 to 2015 and hasn't been great since four-straight trips to at least the Elite Eight from 2005 to 2008. Over the past six seasons, the Heels have just two trips to the NCAA Tournament to their credit, including last year, and they haven’t made it out of the first round.

A Top-10 recruit from the Hoop Gurlz class of 2020, Deja Kelly has started to turn around the fortunes of the program. She was the one who made the game-winning shot to complete the comeback against BC and leads the team with 16.8 points per game. UNC brought in another Top 10 recruit in 2021 in Teonni Key, but she is out for the year with an ACL tear. Meanwhile, sophomore Alyssa Ustby has been just as big of a star as Kelly, averaging 14.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. William & Mary transfer Eva Hodgson and Princeton transfer Carlie Littlefield have given UNC a lethal backcourt surrounding Kelly, who is also a guard.

The Heels will now face Syracuse and will likely be tested at some point during the contest like they were against Boston College. The Orange are in a unique situation as a program that saw nearly its entire roster transfer away and its coach resign after 2020-21. However, under acting head coach Vonn Reed, Syracuse picked up a Dec. 1st win over No. 25 Ohio State, the team ranked one spot behind UNC right now. That win is the reason why the Orange (8-4) are actually pretty high (No. 57) in the NET rankings and on the bubble in ESPN’s bracketology. They’ve won six in a row, including a blowout victory over an ACC team in Clemson and will look to put up a good fight against UNC.

The Orange are led by five starters averaging double-figure scoring. Former Texas Tech star Chrislyn Carr is at the top with 15.6 points per game, while redshirt sophomore Teisha Hyman stuffs the stat sheet with averages of 14.3 points, 6.2 boards, 5.3 assists and 2.7 steals.

Game information:

Syracuse Orange (8-4, 1-1 ACC) vs. No. 24 UNC Tar Heels (11-0, 1-0 ACC)

When: Thursday, Dec. 30 at 4 p.m.

Where: Chapel Hill, NC

How to watch/listen: ACC Network/Radio: ESPN 97.7 or Cuse TV or GoHeels TV

Key to the matchup: Free throws and rebounding. The two teams have enjoyed similar offensive success, but it’s the defense of Syracuse that is suspect. UNC also has large advantages when it comes to getting to the free throw line and rebounding, so if the Orange are unable to defend without fouling or end Tar Heel possessions with rebounds, UNC could build up a lead. The Tar Heels will have to make their free throws though. They are shooting 69.6 percent from the stripe compared to Syracuse’s 78.2 percent mark.