March Madness: Kelly, Ustby lead No. 8 seed North Carolina to 59-56 NCAA victory over Michigan State

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Deja Kelly took away two big things after No. 8 seed North Carolina held off a late run by No. 9 seed Michigan State to start the NCAA Tournament with a victory for a third straight season.

“First, I need to make my damn free throws, so start with that,” Kelly said as the Tar Heels survived in a 59-56 victory Friday. “But I think a lot of maturity showed.”

Kelly hit two of four foul shots in the last five seconds and pulled down a critical rebound. Alyssa Ustby had 16 points and 17 rebounds, no board bigger than collecting Kelly's final foul line miss with 3.2 seconds left as the Tar Heels ran out the clock.

Michigan State, down by 16 early and still trailing 54-42 with 3:22 to play, used a 14-3 run to get within a point after Theryn Hallock's 3-pointer with 5.4 seconds left.

North Carolina could have crumbled, Kelly said, but they held on.

“The way we stayed strong and calm showed a sign of maturity,” said Kelly, who finished 3 of 10 from the foul line. “We didn't let it rattle us.”

Maria Gakdeng also had a double-double for North Carolina with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Ustby had her 16th double-double this season and 38th of her career. She also had six assists and became the first Atlantic Coast Conference player with at least 15 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in an NCAA Tournament game since 2000.

The Spartans almost pulled off a dramatic comeback in coach Robyn Fralick's first season. Fralick and North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart have been longtime friends and hugged after their first-ever meeting as opposing coaches.

Hallock was proud to help the Spartans reach the NCAAs for the first time in three years.

“We are the redeem team,” she said. "(Fralick) came in and changed the program.”

North Carolina will play the winner of the game between host school and No. 1 overall seed South Carolina and 16th-seeded Presbyterian, the Big South Conference champion which lost 99-29 on this floor in December.

Ustby had 10 points in the first and second quarters as North Carolina opened a 23-7 lead. Michigan State saw its best players, Julia Ayrault and Moira Joiner, each pick up three fouls in the first 20 minutes as the Tar Heels led 39-27.

“We'll like watching the first half better than the second half,” Banghart said.

The 18,000-seat arena steadily filled up throughout the opener of the Albany 1 Regional as South Carolina fans — the team led the nation this season by averaging 16,489 people at its home games — arrived to watch the No. 1 overall seed start tournament play later Friday.

ICE CREAM BREAK

North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said her family and the family of Michigan State coach Robyn Fralick went for ice cream on Thursday night before contest. Banghart said everyone enjoyed the time despite knowing both teams would fight like crazy to win.

“But we can also have a friendship," Banghart said.

UP NEXT

North Carolina heads to a likely matchup with the host school, the undefeated Gamecocks, on Sunday. The Tar Heels had an 11-point lead over South Carolina at home in the ACC/SEC Challenge in November before falling 65-58.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness