Heels on cold streak

Lucas, UNC women need to regain touch

Staff WriterMarch 19, 2010 

— North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell likes to say, "Good shooting kills a multitude of sins."

Lately, however, the Tar Heels haven't displayed much good shooting, making just 280 of 736 shots (38 percent) from the field over their past 11 games. For the season, they are shooting 41.4 percent.

Despite losing eight of their past 11 games, the Heels earned a berth in the NCAA tournament and face seventh-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday (10:30 p.m.) in the first round at the University of Washington's Bank of America Center in Seattle.

The Heels (19-11) are seeded 10th - their lowest ever.

Better shooting, as Hatchell suggests, could help the Heels in their new underdog role. They are making their ninth consecutive tournament appearance and have made the Final Four twice in the past five seasons. To get there again, they will also require more from leading scorer Italee Lucas, who over the past 11 games has lost the shooting touch she showed earlier in the season.

Lucas, a career 41.8 career percent shooter, has gone 44-for-142 since Feb. 1.

In the first round of the ACC tournament's against Maryland, Lucas shot 0-for-4 and finished the game scoreless in 19 minutes. In the critical minutes of the game, she was on the bench as her team tried to rally and eventually lost to the Terrapins.

"That's not something I will ever settle for," Lucas said. "That's definitely not where I want to be during crunch time."

A scan of Lucas' game-by-game statistics show inconsistency this season, even though she's averaging 14.7 points. She scored two points against Connecticut and 33 points against N.C. State. She scored 29 points against Michigan State, 28 against Georgia Tech and six against Duke.

Bothered recently by an injured foot, she has struggled to reclaim proper shooting balance. But more than diminished skills or injury, she said it's the mental part of the game that she's working on.

"Physically ... I know it's there," Lucas said. "It's just when things get tough, you have to take that mental part and raise it to a higher level. That's pretty much what I'm asking of myself."

In the ACC tournament, the Heels trailed Maryland by four points with a one minute, 21 seconds remaining and Hatchell called a timeout. She told players not to foul. On the next possession, Lucas fouled and was pulled out of the game.

"I didn't intentionally foul," Lucas said. "I was trying to get things going, pushing to make stuff happen, especially when we are down."

Perhaps more poise in that moment was required.

"She's trying to make things happen too much out there," Hatchell said. "I think sometimes she wants it so bad she tries to do something and it backfires."

While junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid has elevated her game in the second half of the season, the Heels are still searching for consistency across the roster. After 30 games, Hatchell has yet to settle on a starting five.

Gonzaga, an automatic tournament qualifier after winning the West Coast conference, is ranked 18th in the nation and has won 18 consecutive games. The Bulldogs (27-4) are led by junior guard Courtney Vandersloot, an All-American candidate who is averaging 14.6 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from the field.

The Heels last played the Bulldogs in 2006 at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu, running away with a 101-63 victory after making a school-record 14 3-pointers.

It will take that type of shooting from the entire team to stop the Bulldogs on Saturday.

Lucas' teammates want to see her back on the floor draining shots.

"I just try to tell her you are that player, you are that All-American that you can be," DeGraffenreid said. "You are that same person who has led the team to a lot of comebacks and hit those big shots at the end.

"Don't let anybody tell you differently. Go out there and play your game."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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