CHAPEL HILL — There probably won’t be another game in this NCAA women’s basketball tournament that was as bizarre as this one was.
Because No. 12-ranked North Carolina executed one of the biggest comebacks in the history of storied Carmichael Arena, the Tar Heels survived to advance.
Trailing by 18 points with less than 11 minutes to play, UNC got 13 of Diamond DeShields’ 15 points down the stretch and survived a 3-point attempt at the buzzer, holding off Tennessee-Martin 60-58.
The No. 4 seed Tar Heels (25-9) will host their second-round game at 7 p.m. Tuesday against No. 5 seed Michigan State (23-9), which defeated Hampton 91-61 in Sunday’s opener.
No. 13 seed Tennessee-Martin ended its season 24-8.
“We just continue to fight,” said UNC associate head coach Andrew Calder, who has handled sideline duties all season as Sylvia Hatchell undergoes treatment for leukemia. “We tell them, ‘Fight! Play for each other!’ And we continue to battle. … We finally got going in the second half, and we’re hoping that carries over to Tuesday night.”
UNC also got 14 points and nine rebounds from Xylina McDaniel, who deflected Karisma Tyson’s attempt during the closing seconds to preserve the victory.
Heather Butler had 19 points and Ashia Jones 18 for the Skyhawks. Butler hit three 3-pointers to tie the NCAA career record of 392 set by Laurie Koehn of Kansas State in 2005. She finished her career scoring in double figures in all 129 games.
“Basically, if the game was an athletic, physical game we were going to get killed,” Tennessee-Martin coach Kevin McMillan said. “So what we tried to do was slow it down and try to make them think a little bit to do some things.
“I thought they turned up their defensive pressure at the start of the second half, and I thought they really got after us. They were much more aggressive in the second half.”
With the visitors ahead 35-22 the game was delayed 10 minutes because of a scoreboard malfunction at halftime, and there also was mpus-wide security alert because of an “armed and dangerous” person.
None of that seemed to wake up the Tar Heels, who trailed 50-32 after a Jones basket with 10 minutes, 51 seconds to go and looked all but buried.
The momentum switch seemed to come with 8:59 to go, when the Tar Heels’ Brittany Rountree hit two free throws after being fouled by Tiara Caldwell and a Fagrant 1 foul against Caldwell, whose arm hit DeShields under the chin.
DeShields hit both free throws to cut the margin to 50-39, scoring a conventional three-point play at 8:38 to cut the margin to single digits for the first time in more than seven minutes.
“There are certain things that you can definitely control, and I feel like a free throw is one of them,” said DeShields, who was 9-for-9 from the free-throw line. “A free throw is a free shot. There’s no defense. I just feel like if you want to get yourself going, you’ve got to be able to do it on the free-throw line if that’s where your opportunities are presenting themselves.”
UNC finally went ahead at 54-53 on a Rountree 3-pointer at 3:28, followed by a short field goal from McDaniel who shot while sitting on her backside at 2:43.
“To be honest, I was not thinking,” McDaniel said. “I was trying to go back and think ‘Why would you even do that?’ But I don’t know. I was just so wide open, I guess. I was just so close to the basket.”
Jasmine Newsome’s 3-pointer with 1:15 left tied it at 58 for Tennessee-Martin, and McDaniel got the final points on a follow shot with 53 seconds left. UNC’s Latifah Coleman missed two free throws to set up the final play, on which Danielle Butts grabbed the final rebound.
“I felt like we played way better than we have been all season,” Butler said. “We fought, we fought, and it’s really hard to lose that ball game when I know we deserved it. It hurts, and it’s going to hurt probably for the rest of my life, but you know that’s the way it goes sometimes.”