CHAPEL HILL — Just as its schedule increases in difficulty, the North Carolina women's basketball team improved its level of play, defeating Georgia Tech 89-78 in its ACC season-opener at Carmichael Auditorium.
The seventh-ranked Tar Heels slowed a physical opponent and dispatched the No. 20 Yellow Jackets, harnessing a seriousness about their play that may have been lacking in previous performances this season. Perhaps it was the start of conference play that triggered such inspired play or may be it was the thought of top-ranked Connecticut awaiting them in Storrs, Conn., on Saturday?
"This whole week we've been real focused," UNC junior Italee Lucas said. "This is our big ACC game. We do have UConn coming. So there's like no time for weak practices or anything like that."
The Heels (13-1, 1-0) were weak on the boards Wednesday, but strong everywhere else, securing a game-high 28-point performance from Lucas. Four players scored in double figures for the Heels, including She'la White and Cetera DeGraffenreid who finished with 13 points.
There's something about facing Connecticut that motivates the Heels. Last season, just before their game with the Huskies, the Tar Heels crushed No. 14 Virginia, 103-74, setting up a meeting between the nation's top two teams.
The Heels were defeated at home by the Huskies, 88-55, at the Smith Center, but have hope of ending their undefeated run on Saturday.
"I don't think anybody expects us to beat them except us," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
A separated right shoulder injury forced freshman guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt to miss Wednesday game. She injured her shoulder on Saturday against Winston-Salem State and is listed as day-to-day.
The Heels, though, were fine without their leading freshman scorer.
They pulled away from the Yellow Jackets in the first half with a 24-5 run that featured some of their finest basketball this season.
Lucas, who can score in droves when she finds her groove, provided most of the theatrics. She scored 23 points during the first half, including 11 points during the run, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers - one from the left arc and one from the right corner.
The Heels produced the type of fluid transition basketball - creating turnovers and turning them into points - that Hatchell has been looking for this season.
During the run, the Heels forced three turnovers and freshman center Waltiea Rolle registered her second of four blocks.
It's a stretch the Heels will look to reproduce on Saturday against the defending national champion Huskies - a team riding a current 52-game winning streak. It's the third longest winning streak in NCAA women's basketball history, which sits behind the team's own 70 consecutive win record.
"They are human," said Hatchell who sees no weakness in the Huskies. "Somewhere along the line they are going to have a bad game. ... They'll lose some time or another. Saturday's fine with me."