An unlikely hero comes through in the clutch as N.C. State defeats UNC, 74-69

Even though Kayla Jones had not been playing much this season, she was prepared for the big moment.

Jones, the N.C. State sophomore from Jamesville, found herself on the foul line against North Carolina with the game on the line, and on two different occasions she came through in the clutch. Jones hit four free throws in the final 13 seconds as the No.9 Wolfpack avenged their first loss of the season by defeating the Tar Heels, 74-69.

Jones tied her season-high with 14 points and went 6-for-6 from the foul line and 2-for-2 from three. She was one of four N.C. State (24-2, 11-3) players to score in double-figures. Kiara Leslie led the Wolfpack with 21 points. Elissa Cunane (12) and Aislinn Konig (10) each played a part in ruining the final home game for North Carolina’s lone senior, Paris Kea, who scored a season-high 32 points in a losing effort.

Kea nearly stole the show in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 in the last period of play. But with the Wolfpack up by one, it was Jones, who attempted only 11 free throws in her career coming into the game, who sealed the deal.

The 6-1 forward, who came into the contest averaging 17 minutes per game, said her confidence came from her pre-practice shooting routine with Leslie. When she was at the foul line she imagined she was in the gym alone with Leslie, calming her nerves as she was able to put the game away.

“The coaches told me to keep my confidence high,” Jones said. “Because I need to play and be there for my team.”

Jones knocked down both of her three-point attempts in the fourth quarter. Her first three-pointer gave N.C. State a 53-52 lead. Moments later Leslie tied the game at 55 with a layup. The Tar Heels went back in front, 57-55, after a Janelle Bailey layup, but Jones struck again, nailing a three from the corner to put State up one, with 6:11 remaining.

“Confidence,” was the short answer Jones gave when asked what made her take those 3s. “I know we needed it so I let it fly.”

Jones had only hit more than one three in a game once in her career, knocking down two against Maine on Dec. 15. State would still need her later in the final moments after the Tar Heels went back in front, 66-64, after a layup from Jocelyn Jones. Kea gave UNC (17-12, 8-7) its final lead, 68-66, after a layup while drawing a foul. The senior from Greensboro missed the free throw that would have put the Tar Heels up three and State tied the game on a Elissa Cunane bucket with 1:29 remaining.

Leslie’s last field goal put the Wolfpack ahead one, 70-68, and Kea missed the first of two free throws on the other end. A pair of makes would have tied the game for UNC, who went 17-of-22 from the foul line. The Tar Heels missed four free throws in the fourth quarter, something head coach Sylvia Hatchell contributed to the defeat.

“Three reasons we lost the game,” Hatchell said tapping the table as she talked, “foul shooting, rebounding and Stephanie Watts not being out there.”

Watts missed her second straight game after suffering a leg injury against Virginia. In the road win over N.C. State on Feb. 3, Watts, Bailey and Kea combined for 53 points. Bailey got off to a slow start on Sunday and finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Kea got plenty of help from Shayla Bennett, who scored 18 points, but Hatchell didn’t get much outside of Kea, Bennett and Bailey. Taylor Koenen scored seven, on 2-for-12 shooting, including 1-for-7 from three.

“Taylor didn’t have her normal game,” Hatchell said. “We needed some baskets from that position. She was open a lot and she didn’t make some shots there, we needed that.”

Both teams came into the contest short handed and the players available had to log some heavy minutes. Konig, Leslie, Kea and Bennett each played the entire game. Five others played 25 minutes or more. N.C. State’s bench has looked like a MASH unit for the last month of the season, but that has allowed Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore to learn more about younger players like Cunane, a true freshman, and Jones.

“KJ has a lot of talent, lot of ability,” Moore said, “and sometimes her opportunities are sporadic. That’s why it was so important for her today to have a game like this and I think it will help her moving forward, confidence wise. It’s good for some of these younger players to get these opportunities.”

Unfair as it might be, Moore expects double-doubles from Leslie, who added 10 rebounds to go along with her 21 points. To get a contribution from Jones and Cunane is an added bonus that’s only going to help the Wolfpack moving forward.

“We’ve come to expect that from (Kiara),” Moore said. “But for KJ to come in and do what she did, the two big 3s and the free throws down the stretch in key situations to step up there calmly and knock down four in a row.”

The excitement of the final quarter made up for a cold first half for both teams.

The end of the second half was forgettable for the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack as the lid was suddenly placed on the basket. UNC, who led 29-26 at the break, went the final 3:55 of the second quarter without a field goal. N.C. State went the last 2:59 without a made field goal.

The Tar Heels last made field goal was a three from Kea that gave UNC a 27-23 lead. UNC would shoot 0-3 from the field with three turnovers the rest of the way. The last bucket from the Wolfpack came from Konig, who scored a layup with 3:12 remaining in the second quarter. State would shoot 0-5 from the field to close out the half. The teams crawled to half by getting a pair of free throws from UNC guard Shayla Bennett and one from the foul line from Leslie.

It was a contrast from the opening of the game, when the teams traded baskets back and forth in the opening minutes, tying the game twice in the first four minutes. Both teams cooled off, each shooting under 40 percent in the first half.

The fourth quarter, however, was worth the price of admission for the fans. The lead changed hands six times and there were five ties before State took over for good to get some revenge on the Tar Heels, who ended the Wolfpack’s 22-game win streak and ruined their undefeated season.

“To me every game is important,” Moore said. “To me it’s more important that we show up consistently. I’ve used the example before, it’s like McDonald’s fries, you know what McDonald’s fries are going to be like wherever you go. I want to know what we got and who we are no matter where we go play.”

N.C. State will close out the regular season on Thursday at No. 4 Louisville. The Tar Heels head to Duke on March 3. The Blue Devils won the last match up 85-69 without Kea in the lineup, who missed the game with an illness. Hatchell hopes to have Watts back and be fully healthy for the rematch in Durham.

“The key word is healthy,” Hatchell said. “We’ve had a few others banged up here and there, but Stephanie out today was a huge factor. If we can get healthy and have everybody we can play with pretty much anybody.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.