CHAPEL HILL — Over the past month, North Carolina junior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has spent extra hours in the gym shooting from all angles on the basketball court, launching 1,000 shots per week.
"I've been missing a lot of easy shots," she said. "So just getting in the gym, shooting those shots that I miss over and over and over is helping them go in."
That repetition resulted in a spectacular Sunday afternoon for the 5-foot-10 guard. She scored a career-high 23 points in leading the Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5) to a rough-and-tumble 68-59 victory against ACC rival N.C. State (15-13, 4-10) in front of an announced crowd of 3,853 at Carmichael Arena.
The Tar Heels relied on Ruffin-Pratt, 6-6 junior center Waltiea Rolle and long-armed defense to capture its second conference win after dropping three in a row.
Ruffin-Pratt and Rolle had played in just half of the team's games this season. With senior center Chay Shegog - the team's leading scorer - picking up three fouls early in the first half, Rolle came off the bench to score 12 points, grab three rebounds and block five shots in 23 minutes - her best effort since returning to the team Dec. 29 after giving birth to her daughter on Nov. 8.
"Thanks to the coaches, I am in better shape now," said Rolle, who has dropped 20 pounds.
Ruffin-Pratt returned to the team Jan. 5 after missing 13 games recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
She scored 13 in the first half Sunday and finished with 11 rebounds and two assists, providing the offensive aggression the Tar Heels needed to overcome a plucky yet poor-shooting N.C. State team.
"Our field goal percentage was too low to win games in the ACC," said N.C. State coach Kellie Harper, whose team shot 20.6 percent in the first half and 26.4 overall.
N.C. State also committed 19 turnovers, which UNC converted into 22 points.
The Tar Heels, who in recent weeks have fallen from the national polls, followed a close victory against Florida State on Wednesday with a convincing victory against the Wolfpack, which dropped its fifth consecutive conference game.
UNC outrebounded N.C. State 43-39, posted 12 blocks and shot 46.2 percent from the field.
The Tar Heels surged to an 18-point lead with 4 minutes, 57 seconds left on a layup by Shegog. But the Wolfpack responded with three consecutive 3-pointers and cut the lead to nine points.
"That was a big game for us because N.C. State plays so hard," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "We knew N.C. State was going to play really hard, because they always do. They made some big 3s down the stretch there but it's really good to be at 19 wins now."
The Tar Heels have two games remaining on the regular-season schedule, against No. 8 Maryland on Friday and No. 5 Duk2
e on Sunday.
Hatchell said the Tar Heels defended well, using their arm length and height advantage to frustrate the Wolfpack. She said her team, which has turned in some less-than-stellar performances, has to maintain its health and continue to develop into the postseason.
"Keep playing hard and keep learning," Hatchell said. "And realizing that we haven't reached our potential."
With five lead changes in the first half, the Tar Heels pulled ahead on a jump shot by Ruffin-Pratt at 11:26. She ignited a 16-5 run and helped her team carry a 33-21 lead into halftime.
Ruffin-Pratt has dealt with nagging shoulder injuries since she was a high school senior in Alexandria, Va.
For two seasons at North Carolina, she wore bulky braces on both shoulders. She returned to the roster healthy.
On Sunday, she showed no signs of pain, making 8 of 14 shots from the field. She found her way to the basket with strong drives and drained several open jump shots - lifting her unsatisfactory 28.1 shooting percentage.
Ruffin-Pratt also made 7 of 8 free throws after aggressive drives. With a 1:40 left, she sliced into the lane for a layup. Shortly thereafter, she was fouled and made two free throws to give the Tar Heels a 68-57 lead after the Wolfpack had once again whittled the lead to nine points.
Ruffin-Pratt plans to keep shooting.
"It's just going to get better and better as the season goes on," she said.