Suddenly depleted UNC advances in ACC Tournament with 80-73 win over Georgia Tech

North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell always preaches to her team to stay ready.

She tells her girls they never know when they will be thrust into action and expected to perform, and Hatchell had several players rise to the occasion against Georgia Tech on Thursday in the ACC Tournament.

Hatchell got unexpected contributions from all across her roster as the Heels advance with a 80-73 win over the Yellow Jackets. UNC will play No. 1 Notre Dame Friday at 2 p.m.

It was announced a half-hour before the game that sophomore center Janelle Bailey was suspended after being ejected during the fourth quarter against Duke on Sunday. That meant UNC would be without its second-leading scorer and top rebounder. Carolina has been without third-leading scorer Stephanie Watts for the last three games, which meant Hatchell had to be creative with her lineups.

Sophomore forward Jaelynn Murray got the second start of her career. Hatchell also had to borrow minutes in the first half from seldom-used center Naomi Van Nes, who had played just 34 minutes this season heading into the tournament.

Murray and Van Nes combined for six points in 34 minutes. Murray found out she was getting the start two days ago, and Bailey, who will return for the Notre Dame game, took her roommate under her wing. Hatchell wanted Bailey to make this start the biggest moment for Murray since she arrived at UNC.

Murray started the first game of her career on Jan. 20, playing 11 minutes, but hadn’t played more than seven since then. With Bailey roaming the sidelines like an extra coach, Murray adjusted nicely.

“At shootaround she was always talking to me, in my ear,” Murray said. “It was just little things she told me that made me take that next step. We made this deal that after each free throw I come to her and she would tell me what I needed to do.”

Hatchell also got big minutes from Jocelyn Jones, a reserve guard who averaged 3.4 points per game this season. Jones’ role is to typically bring energy off the bench, but against the Yellow Jackets, Jones found her offensive groove, tying her career high with 14 points. She also had nine rebounds.

“I challenged them all to step up,” Hatchell said. “Jocelyn had some big rebounds, made some big baskets. She’s a physical player, she loves a game like this, I mean really. In practice she’s knocking people all over the place, so she loves that. But she stepped up and helped us a lot.”

The star of the first half was Church, who scored the first nine points of the game for the Tar Heels, carrying the load early as Georgia Tech tied the score at nine before another UNC player, Paris Kea, scored a bucket.

North Carolina’s Leah Church (20) starts a fast break during the second half against Georgia Tech on Thursday, March 7, 2019 during the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. Robert Willett

Church finished with a career-high 20 points, connecting on a career-high six three pointers. Church hit three in a row to start the game and had 12 by halftime, when the Heels trailed 40-35. She only hit two shots from the floor in the second half, but they were big ones.

Her first made three in the fourth quarter gave UNC a three-point lead and her final bucket put the Tar Heels up seven with 39 seconds remaining. UNC pulled to within one on three different occasions in the third quarter, but it was two free throws by Church – her only free throws of the game – that gave the Tar Heels the lead for good.

Kea, playing in her hometown, scored 15 points in the second half to finish with 19. Shayla Bennett added 18.

This win, though, was a total team effort, Hatchell said. Even seldom used forward Olivia Smith played a huge part, Hatchell said, hitting one free throw that gave the Heels a six-point lead with 25 seconds remaining. Smith came in to shoot the free throws for Kea, who hit the floor hard and had to be helped to the bench after a foul. Smith hadn’t played in a game since December, but found herself shooting her first free throw of the year Thursday.

“In practice when we do drills and stuff she hardly ever misses,” Hatchell said of the junior from Raleigh. “She’s really a good foul shooter, that’s why I put here in there.”

The win gives UNC 63 wins in the ACC Tournament, the most in tournament history.

Bailey returning will be welcomed against the Fighting Irish, a team the Tar Heels knocked off 78-73 on Jan. 27 when they were the top-ranked team in the country.

“Bringing her back is obviously a big deal,” Bennett said. “They are going to have to play her inside, which is going to open up our outside and that’s going to give us better opportunities.”

Jonas E. Pope IV: 919-829-8911, @JEPopeIV

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