The University of North Carolina women’s basketball team had been knocking on the door for a few games now, but couldn’t quite get over the hump, dropping five in a row heading into Sunday’s showdown with No. 18 N.C. State.
UNC, which didn’t have any problems scoring its last game out, finally put it all together against the Wolfpack, knocking off the ACC rival 83-70 in Carmichael Arena.
Four Tar Heels scored in double digits, but it was a spark by the veteran of the group, junior guard Jamie Cherry, that broke the game open for North Carolina (13-9, 2-7 ACC).
Cherry went scoreless in the first half but came out strong after intermission, scoring all of her game-high 23 points in the second half. Cherry was lethal from the 3-point line, knocking down six 3-pointers on nine attempts. As a team UNC hit 14 from downtown, tying the best mark in school history. It was the second time this season the Tar Heels have hit 14 3-pointers in one game.
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“I told the team if they have a great attitude and keep working hard, great things will happen,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Tonight we were just clicking. We made a lot of 3s, but they were good 3s, good shots.”
Cherry and sophomore guard Stephanie Watts (19 points) led the long-range barrage. Watts finished 5-for-10 from behind the line, helping the Heels jump out to an eight-point lead at the break, thanks to an 11-point first half. But it was Cherry, a 29 percent 3-point shooter, who changed the tide of the game once she got hot.
Cherry’s first 3-pointer put UNC up 45-32 and she found the bottom of the net on her next two trips down the floor, giving the Heels a 51-35 lead. The only bucket N.C. State (16-6, 6-3) managed was a 3-pointer from Ashley Williams, but the spotlight was on Cherry, who said she put up extra shots the last few weeks, knowing she was due for a breakout game.
“I think that’s a point of emphasis on my game,” Cherry said. “All four guards can shoot, so when all of us are on, nobody can stop us.”
The sudden hot hand from Cherry opened up the rest of the floor for Paris Kea (21 points) and Destinee Walker (12), making the Wolfpack have to pick its poison when it came to the Heels’ offense.
“We did have a chance to guard them,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “We didn’t quite get that done. We dug a hole, did a lot of good things, but it wasn’t enough today.”
The Wolfpack’s only lead of the game was by two in the first quarter. The Tar Heels led by as many as 18, but N.C. State managed to cut it to five, 65-60, with 6:02 remaining in the game. The Heels outscored the Wolfpack 18-10 the rest of the way, getting two more 3-pointers from Cherry, and one each from Watts and Walker to pull away.
While the Heels were lights out from the field, N.C. State was shooting blanks, finishing 7-for-27 (25.9 percent) from beyond the line. The Wolfpack also had four players in double figures – Dominique Wilson (18), Miah Spencer (15), Jennifer Mathurin (13), Chelsea Nelson (11) – but shot 32 percent from the floor, way below its season average.
“We can shoot the ball a lot better than we have the last couple of games, we’ve got some great shooters,” Moore said. “Part of that is on me. I have to make sure we have an inside presence.”
The Tar Heels start four guards and killed the Wolfpack in transition, scoring 27 fastbreak points, prompting Hatchell to confess she prefers when a team pressures them.
“We have just tore presses apart all year,” Hatchell said. “I’ll just be honest with you about that. We have four kids who played point guard in high school, so we’re really hard to press. We sort of like when teams press us, not to give away our secret.”
N.C. State had a two-game winning streak over the Heels coming into Sunday’s contest. The two teams seemed to be trending in opposite directions prior to the latest matchup; State starts four seniors, while the Tar Heels don’t have a healthy senior available to play. But the Heels, fresh off an impressive performance in a loss at Miami Thursday night, finally put it all together on their home floor.
“We’re getting better and better and better,” Hatchell said. “We’re still throwing a lot of different things out there and trying to find out what’s going to work best for us.”