CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina has already nailed down a very good womens basketball season.
But if the No. 16 Tar Heels want to make it a great one, they need to take care of some more business.
A big part of that is today at 1:30 at Carmichael Arena, when North Carolina (24-4, 12-3 ACC) hosts archrival N.C. State (13-14, 5-10) in the Tar Heels Play 4Kay game. State leads the all-time series 51-44.
The contest, in which the teams will wear pink or pink-trimmed uniforms, is played to raise breast cancer awareness and in memory of the Wolfpacks late Hall of Fame coach Kay Yow.
It means a lot because Kay and I were such close friends, Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said. I can remember very vividly the first time I got the word she had breast cancer the first week of August in 1987.
I owe her a lot. I probably wouldnt be here at North Carolina if it wasnt for Kay. She recommended me for this job (when Hatchell was at Francis Marion). And as good a coach as she was, she was an even better person.
The Tar Heels, who beat State 70-66 on Jan. 10 at Reynolds Coliseum, have no low-profile games left on the schedule. Theres Sundays contest, Thursdays senior night game with Boston College, the visit to other archrival Duke, and then the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
North Carolina has clinched a first-round bye in the ACC tournament for the first time since 2009, and after last years 20-11 finish that failed to impress the selection committee, the Tar Heels are a mortal lock to make the NCAA field.
(State) plays the best they play against us, said Hatchell, who is No. 2 on the all-time wins list with 903, of the Wolfpack. Marissa (Kastanek) always plays well against us. Shes a great player but she always brings her A-game against us. (Kody) Burke is playing better and theyre an athletic, scrappy team, much better than their record indicates.
Weve won some close games because of our leadership. Our seniors Krista (Gross) and Waltiea (Rolle) and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt have really stepped up.
While things have gone well for the Tar Heels, the Wolfpack has its back against the wall. The ACC tournament champion gets an automatic NCAA bid, and if the Wolfpack were to lose the ACC title game after winning six straight, that might be enough to impress the selection committee. But more realistically N.C. State, which has at least four games left, needs to find three more wins to earn a return trip to the WNIT.
We just lacked confidence down the stretch (in the loss to UNC), said State coach Kellie Harper, 2-5 against North Carolina. Weve had several of those games. Were ahead and we probably feel pretty good about what we need to do, and then we give up a basket late thats a backbreaker.
I think we did some good things, and our kids probably outplayed them the majority of the game. But we didnt have the confidence to finish, and (the Tar Heels) do. Theyre in a lot of close games where they come out on top.
Harper said a healthy senior point guard Ruffin-Pratt has made North Carolina a much better team.
I think we have great confidence, Ruffin-Pratt said. Weve been playing well as a team and our defense has been great. We have confidence in getting stops late in the games and making clutch shots.
They always give us a great game, here or there. Kastanek, (Myisha) Goodwin-Coleman and Kody Burke are great players. Its going to be physical and athletic.
Burke said N.C. State, which last won in Chapel Hill during the current seniors freshman season, could pull the upset if it has the correct mental state.
In the ACC anybody can win or lose, Burke said. We just have to stay positive and stay focused. The first thing thats in my head is seeking revenge. Knowing we had them last time, thats definitely motivation for all of us. When were focused, were an excellent team that can beat anybody.
Gross said shes expecting N.C. State to have plenty of enthusiasm.
The rivalry is huge, Gross said. They always show up to play so weve just got to match their intensity. Theyre tough, a scrappy, physical group of kids who always play hard. Theyre a lot better than their record shows, because theyve played a lot of good teams really close.