After the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the sports world, UNC girls basketball player Alyssa Ustby was thrilled to finally play in front of fans in the team’s season opener against North Carolina A&T Tuesday.
âThe whole time it was like glorified workouts with no fans at all,â Ustby said. “I’m nervous but excited.”
The pandemic kept the sophomore guard from playing in front of fans for almost a year. In his first season at UNC, Ustby played 719 minutes – the most on the team. As she felt ready to take on her role and fill a gap, she also questioned herself and wondered how she would prove her worth to the team.
A native of Rochester, Minn., Ustby attended Lourdes High School and was a trisport athlete, playing softball and soccer in addition to basketball. She chose not to specialize in basketball, having great success on other sports teams, such as when her softball team won a state championship.
âI definitely credit my athleticism with my ability to stay healthy and be a multisport athlete,â she said.
She grew up in a basketball environment, attending training sessions for her three older brothers at a young age. She first picked up a basketball in second grade. From there, she found herself making regular appearances in the gym and on the field, marking the beginning of her love for the sport – a love that took her from Minnesota to North Carolina.
“We are proud to be a fraternity”
The transition to North Carolina was unnatural for Ustby, who wasn’t sure how she would fit in as a girl from a small town in Minnesota. This transition, however, was made easier by one thing: the support of his team.
“It was a little weird coming here at first, but my teammates helped me through that,” Ustby said. “They helped me grow and they constantly encouraged me.”
After witnessing her family atmosphere, she was convinced that she wanted to make UNC her school of choice.
âI think we are really proud to be a brotherhood and there is always a positive energy in our team which is a rare feeling, but great,â said Ustby.
In high school, Ustby admired former UNC goalie Taylor Koenen, who graduated in 2020. They played in the same AAU program, Minnesota Fury, and Ustby proudly wears the No.1, as does Koenen’s. wore during his playing career at UNC.
âShe was that person you’ve always heard of, and I always admired her because I wanted to be like her,â Ustby said. âI set goals for myself to be where she was and I achieved them. It’s super significant.
This year, the team welcomed four new first years to the roster: Teonni Key, Kayla McPherson, Destiny Adams and Morasha Wiggins. Going out to eat and attending football games together, the sense of team cohesion Ustby received in her first year continued with the new group of players behind her.
“It’s a beast”
Ustby came to UNC as a three-star rookie and was not included in ESPN’s 2020 women’s basketball scouting rankings. Although her name is missing from the list, head coach Courtney Banghart saw something in the then high school athlete.
âShe was the lowest ranked kid in her class and totally underrated, but I saw a high powered, competitive and versatile athlete who had incredible footwork,â said Banghart. “It’s a beast, and I knew I could build it.”
That’s exactly what Banghart did, but Ustby’s unmistakable commitment to his personal health and fitness is a notable factor in his success.
Ustby’s daily schedule includes lessons between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., followed by a two-hour practice and a one-hour ascent. Even on her days off, she is dedicated to meeting her positional coach, watching movies about other teams, and getting treatment.
She also uses those off days to catch up on her schooling, admitting that maintaining a balance between school and basketball can be difficult. Nonetheless, her work ethic is still reflected on the pitch and in the classroom as she secured a place on the ACC 2020-21 Academic Honor Roll.
To hear her coach say it, whether on the field or in the classroom, she is relentless.
âShe is an easy child to support,â Banghart said. âHer athleticism is excellent because she is able to make the necessary changes to her game. Her body is so athletic.
During the 2020-21 season, Ustby averaged 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds, started in 17 games and played in the 24. She was also recognized on the pre-season watch list. Cheryl Miller Award season 2022, an award that recognizes the best little striker in the country.
Banghart said she hopes Ustby could become a first-round pick for the WNBA and believes her work ethic will get her there, but she’s not the only one seeing Ustby’s potential.
Ustby’s close friend and teammate striker Alexandra Zelaya said she notices how hard Ustby works every day.
âAlyssa is very hardworking,â Zelaya said. “You can feel his competitive energy.”
Ustby and Zelaya arrived at UNC as a freshman together in 2020. Upon arrival, they were both new to everything, struggling to learn more about themselves and the environment around them. COVID-19 made it difficult to meet new people, so they sought to do something together that wasn’t basketball.
âCOVID has brought social, mental and physical challenges,â Zelaya said. “We learned a lot about our friendship during this time and he’s always someone I can laugh and smile with.”
Ustby’s pre-game ritual is all about preparing both emotionally and mentally. She emphasizes making sure she is in good mental condition before the game. With the squad striving for a conference title this season, all of that preparation will be necessary, but they know they can handle it.
âI know we can win ACC championships,â Ustby said. âWe have all the right coins to win, and now it’s about continuing to work hard. There is a lot of excitement about this season.
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