It was hard to imagine the North Carolina women’s basketball team getting any younger. The Tar Heels started three freshman, picking a bad time to show their youth against an N.C. State team that was honoring four seniors – three starters – on Senior Night.
Age and experienced prevailed as the No. 18 Wolfpack avenged an earlier loss to the Tar Heels, winning 80-60 in front of a rowdy crowd at Reynolds Coliseum.
“Great way to send out of seniors,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “Those four have been a pure joy to be around and to coach. Hopefully we can build off this and continue a little bit of a run for those four kids.”
One of those N.C. State seniors, Ashley Williams, hit a career-high six 3-pointers on her way to 18 points. Another senior, Dominique Wilson went out with a bang, scoring 19 points, 12 coming in the first half. By the break the Wolfpack already had four players – Williams, Wilson, and Jennifer Mathurin – with double-digit points. Before the third quarter was over, that number grew to four when Chelsea Nelson reached her 10th point.
“I just came out and was a little bit more aggressive,” Williams said. “My teammates did a good job finding me in transition.”
Playing shorthanded with leading scorer Stephanie Watts in street clothes, the Tar Heels (14-14, 3-12 ACC) had to rely heavily on guards Jamie Cherry and Paris Kea, who combined for the first eight UNC points. UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell was forced to start three freshmen, while all her reserves were also first-year players. Without Watts (16.8 ppg) and Destinee Walker (12.4), who has missed the last six games, Hatchell was missing 31 combined points from the last time the two teams met.
The Wolfpack (21-7, 11-4) led by as many as 24 points in the first half and jumped out to an 8-0 lead before the Tar Heels even got on the board. With Kea and Cherry providing the only firepower, UNC started the game shooting 20 percent from the floor.
“It was nice to see the ball go through the net a few times,” Moore said. “We had gotten off to a slow start the last few games. It was good for us to hit some shots and get some confidence.”
Hatchell saw it coming.
“They started out about as how we expected them to,” Hatchell said. “I’m sure they hadn’t forgot what happened in Chapel Hill last time. I thought we weathered the storm, but I thought State would come out like that. When they are making 3s they are really hard to beat.”
N.C. State started out clicking on all cylinders, jumping out to a double-digit lead minutes into the contest behind Williams and company.
“We came out and put our foot on the pedal and didn’t let up,” Miah Spencer said after scoring nine points against the Tar Heels.”
The Tar Heels’ best stretch was an 8-0 run midway through the second quarter. Even after that flash of life they still trailed the Wolfpack by 14. That success was short-lived as the Wolfpack, which was red hot in the opening 20 minutes, with five straight. N.C. State connected on 10 3s in the first half, three more than it hit the entire game when the two teams met in Chapel Hill on Jan. 29. The Pack finished with 13 from long range, doubling its average per game.
North Carolina didn’t have the bodies, with just six Tar Heels seeing major minutes. N.C State, meanwhile, countered with 12 players seeing action, with nine of them scoring. The Wolfpack got 11 points from its bench, while North Carolina only got six, all of those coming from freshman Emily Sullivan. Cherry did it all for the Tar Heels, leading the team in scoring (25), rebounds (8) and assists (4) in 38 minutes of action.
“I’m proud of my group, they played hard under the circumstances of playing shorthanded,” Hatchell said. “I don’t want to take anything away from N.C. State. When they are making 3s they are hard to beat, and they didn’t make many of those in Chapel Hill.”
North Carolina closes out the regular season on Sunday, hosting rival Duke at 3 p.m. The Wolfpack closed the doors at Reynolds, ending the regular season with a home win for the first time in four years.
“Every game we come out the fans have the same energy,” Williams said. “We have the best fans in the country. A lot of schools don’t have that kind of support, they get it for football and men’s basketball, but we are thankful that we have it here for women’s basketball as well.”