Tar Heels get many contributions from several players, win behind Bailey’s leadership
By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s women have proven to be quite resilient and not fazed by early deficits. They did that again Sunday but also showed the poise to win a close game for the first time in three tries.
After falling behind by 17 points early with sloppy first-quarter play, the Tar Heels battled back. Carolina (7–2, 2–2 ACC) avenged a loss 10 days earlier to Wake Forest (4–3, 1–2) with a 77–74 overtime victory Sunday in Carmichael Arena to end a three-game skid against the Deacs.
In the first meeting, UNC’s Ariel Young missed a potential game-tying 3-point attempt at the regulation buzzer. This time, the Deacons’ Gina Conti rimmed out on a 3-point try as time expired in overtime.
“We gritted that out after not playing so well,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart, whose team rallied for an early 23-point deficit against High Point. “Three games in a week is tough for this team at this time of the year, given how anxious we are to just have a little bit of a separation. So, really happy that the kids got the win.”
The Tar Heels lost close games at Wake Forest (57–54) and at Miami (67–64) but weren’t going to be denied Sunday.
“In a possession game it comes down to who makes makes plays at the end, and we made plays at the end this time and we didn’t the last time,” Banghart said.
UNC struggled most of the game from the perimeter, going 5 of 24 from 3-point range, but got energy on offense from many players to overcome that. When the Tar Heels faced the big first-half deficit, it was Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts. In the second half and down the stretch, it was freshman guard Alyssa Ustby.
The rock for the Tar Heels throughout the game was senior center Janelle Bailey, who played 41 minutes and produced a double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
“I think we were the tougher team today,” said Bailey, who is the ACC player of the week. “I’m just proud of the team for just finding a way throughout the game. You just have to find a way, make a way to make a win happen. We got Wake Forest’s best today and you know all their players play their hardest. I think our team just handled it well and stayed true to who we are.”
Carolina’s biggest runs in the game were put together with Bailey and four guards to counteract the Deacons’ small lineup. Without consistent outside shooting, Wake Forest was packing it in on UNC’s post players.
“If we’re not going to be able to hammer inside, we should just play small and drive by them,” Banghart said. “I’m not going to go away from playing two bigs. We’ve just got to make shots so that we allow them to play a little bit more one on one in the low post.”
Ustby, who started for the second consecutive game, scored all 15 of her points in the second half after not taking a shot in the first half and was a pest on defense. Ustby said that she was able to find the openings in Wake Forest’s zone in the second half.
“I had more of an attack mindset in the second half because I knew that I could either get myself a layup or I could kick for a shooter on my team,” Ustby said.
The freshman from Rochester, Minn., said that Bailey’s leadership was important in making that four-guard lineup work. Those four guards were from a group including point guard Deja Kelly, Holešínská, Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Watts.
“She really helped us on offense, reminding us to move the ball,” Ustby said of Bailey. “We really all fit well together and worked well with her and that’s how we’re able to make shots.”
About the only person in Carmichael who could stop her was Banghart, who abruptly stopped her postgame comments so that Ustby could rush to the airport to catch her flight home.
“She gives you everything she has every time,” Banghart said of Ustby. “Defensively, she concentrates with the entire shot clock. She doesn’t make a lot of defensive mistakes in terms of our defensive game plan in our positioning, so that you trust her on that end and then on the offensive end she keeps it really simple. She does exactly what we tell her to do. And then the X factor for her is that Alyssa just plays the game hard.”
The biggest contrast from the loss to the Deacons was getting to the free-throw line. In the first game, the Tar Heels only attempted nine free throws but they were 22 of 31 from the line Sunday.
“We’re in a league of a lot of experienced players and we know we’re not one of them, so we’ve got to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes twice,” Banghart said, pointing to the success getting to the line.
Three-point shooting kept Wake Forest in the game. The Deacons netted 14 3-pointers and shot better from 3-point range (46.7%) than they did on 2-point tries (34.3%). Jewel Spear led the Deacons with 22 points and six 3-pointers with Alexandria Scruggs adding 16 points with four 3-pointers.
Holešínská, who came off the bench to score 14, gave UNC a 53–49 lead on a 4-point play (after being fouled while sinking a 3-pointer from the left wing) and a 3-pointer in the final 54 seconds left in the third quarter. When Ustby sank a 3-pointer on an early fourth-quarter fast break, the Heels pushed the lead to 10.
The Deacs rallied, though. A Spear 3-pointer and a Christian Mora 3-point play with 3:56 left tied it and Conti’s 3-pointer gave Wake Forest a 66–63 lead with 2:33 left.
A Kelly drive gave UNC a 67–66 lead but Scruggs put the Deacs back up by one with a bucket seconds later.
Todd-Williams, who had here second double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds, split two free throws with 7.5 seconds left to tie it at 68. After Conti’s driving layup rimmed out, UNC rebounded and called timeout with 0.8-of-a-second left. Holešínská missed on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer.
Ustby’s short jumper gave UNC the lead. She then assisted on a Bailey layup and scored inside to put UNC up 74–68 with 1:47 left in overtime.
A Spear 3-pointer with 7.4 seconds left cut the lead to 77–74. After Kelly turned the ball over, Wake Forest got one more chance, but Conti’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out.
“In overtime, we really broke their pressure to get open looks and also I think we were really well-conditioned,” Banghart said, pointing out that Bailey and Ustby both played 41 minutes.
It was a rough first quarter for the Tar Heels, who turned the ball over eight times, gave up a 7–0 Deacons run and finished trailing 22–10.
“We know there’s going to be things we don’t like within ourselves but talking to ourselves — those hurdles at the free throw line are probably one of the most important things about what’s going on,” Bailey said. “But I think the resiliency that our team has showed, pretty much since the season started, has been great.”
There was quite a turnaround in the second quarter with cleaner play that produced only one turnover. In the second half, UNC only turned the ball over five times.
Watts, who had gone scoreless in the previous two games, and Holešínská sparked a 20-2 second-quarter run to take a brief 30–29 lead with 1:55 left in the first half.
Watts ended the scoring drought on a short jumper, then converted a three-point play on a drive after a Holešínská steal. Holešínská then got a steal and layup before a Bailey inside bucket cut it to two.
Holešínská’s 3-pointer from the right side gave UNC the brief lead before a 6–0 Deacons run gave them a 35–30 halftime lead.
Carolina’s players are now off to visit their families before returning to Chapel Hill on Christmas Day. UNC visits No. 18 Syracuse on New Year’s Eve for a 2 p.m. game. The Orange will be looking for revenge after absorbing a 92–68 loss Thursday in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina 77, Wake Forest 74 (OT)
Photos by Grant Halverson courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications