By R.L. Bynum
Tar Heels fans knew the dynamic talent that North Carolina got when Stephanie Watts transferred back into the program before this season.
But as the struggles with her shot seemed to affect her overall game, they weren’t seeing that Watts.
She was back Tuesday afternoon at Syracuse.
Watts came off the bench to contribute 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals but they weren’t enough against No. 23 Syracuse. The Orange (7–1, 4–1 ACC) avenged its only loss of the season with a 88–76 home victory Tuesday afternoon.
“What she has had to endure, being one of our great players in Carolina history and to have such a hard spell is a really hard thing to take and she’s just taking it like a pro,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “She really has and so, she’s not been a distraction. She’s been the opposite. She’s been a leader. I’m just really happy for her that it worked out and I think she’ll build on it.”
Another veteran, senior center Janelle Bailey, was the catalyst in the second half. She scored 10 consecutive third-quarter points in one stretch on her way to a 22-point game as the Tar Heels led by as many as nine points in that period.
Syracuse surged in the fourth quarter, though, to take control and hand UNC (7–5, 2–5) its season-high third consecutive loss. The Tar Heels went from 61% shooting in the third quarter to 24% in the final quarter.
The Orange shot 67% in the fourth quarter to outscore UNC 27–9. Carolina’s two worse offensive quarters of the season have come in consecutive games. Virginia Tech held UNC to nine points in the second quarter of the Hokies’ 66–54 win.
“Our energy was definitely better today throughout the course of the game,” Bailey said. “We lost all that in the fourth quarter. But I felt like our energy was really, really good. Now it’s time to put all four quarters together and be desperate for a win.”
Considering that the Orange is one of the best teams in the ACC, behind only No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 N.C. State, there was a lot to like from the Tar Heels’ effort even with the tough fourth quarter.
“I feel much more energized now than I did before the game, given how out of sync we were the last two games,” Banghart said. “But I feel like they’re coming back now, and I wish we had a game on Thursday.”
Alyssa Ustby scored 13 points for UNC and point guard Deja Kelly, who made a pair of 3-pointers, collected nine points, five assists and a steal.
“I thought we fought, played hard and came out with a lot of energy,” Watts said. “We just need to maintain that for the entirety of the game, but I think that’s going to come. We have a lot of young players and they’re coming along every single game. Everyone is, so I’m excited for where this team is going from here.”
Syracuse got double-doubles from point guard Tiana Mangakahia (19 points, 13 assists) center Kamilla Cardoso (10 points, 16 rebounds) and reserve Emily Engstler (11 points and 13 rebounds) and was led in scoring by 23 from Kiara Lewis.
When Watts sank a 3-pointer from the right corner nearly five minutes into the game, that seemed to knock away the bad vibes that caused so much frustration, and she scored seven points in the first quarter.
Watts had missed 20 consecutive 3-point attempts before that and scored only 19 points in six ACC games. Watts had three 3-pointers Tuesday after making only one previously in ACC play.
She admitted that the struggles with her shot may have affected the rest of her game.
“Maybe,” Watts, who returned to UNC after an injury-shortened season at Southern Cal, said after a pause. “Offense turns into the defense, defense into offense. So, I think I just come out and play hard every single day and you know when you do that and you bring consistency with energy, it’s gonna fall into place.”
Nobody knew that more than Bailey, who is Watts’ teammate for a third season. Bailey said she cleared it out of her mind that Watts was struggling because she knew it wouldn’t last.
“I don’t really care, because I’ve seen plenty of makes in my time,” Bailey said, referring to Watts’ shooting prowess. “So, yeah, I was really proud of her today. She just came in. She stepped up.”
Watts added a steal and a layup in the opening quarter to cap a 9–2 UNC run and give the Tar Heels the early edge.
“She’s done what I’ve asked her to do in terms of trying to set other people up and finding a way to have her defense ignite her offense and to bring energy to the group, and everything else will fall into place,” Banghart said.
Rebounding is one of UNC’s consistent strengths. But after getting outrebounded in the Thursday home loss against Virginia Tech, Syracuse had a 33–16 edge at halftime.
Although UNC still was outrebounded for the game (50–36), the Tar Heels turned it around and had a 20–17 edge in the second half. Syracuse had a 42%–24% edge in offensive rebounding percentage for the game but UNC pulled down a 33%–24% advantage in the second half.
“We talked about it,” Bailey said of a halftime discussion about the issues under the boards. “We got on each other. The coaches were telling us how many more rebounds they had than us and we took that to heart.”
Syracuse finished the first half with an 11–4 run to take a 40–37 halftime lead.
A Watts assist led to a four-point play from Kelly to take a brief 45–44 lead with 8:15 left in the third quarter. Two Bailey layups and two Bailey jumpers capped a 14–2 run to give UNC a 53–46 lead with 5:49 left. A Watts 3-pointer with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter gave the Tar Heels a 65–56 edge.
But everything came apart for Carolina in the fourth quarter.
“We missed a few and kind of forced a tough shot against their center, which was never in our game plan,” Banghart said. “We didn’t do that much in the first half. Deja forced a tough two instead of making an extra pass, things like that, which led to misses and then you know they’re a dynamic team. They have a five-year point guard, who’s playing against my rookie.”
The Tar Heels return home Sunday at noon (ESPNU) to face Notre Dame (7–5, 5–3), which visits Virginia Tech on Thursday night.
In part of schedule shuffling, the ACC added a road game for UNC at Virginia Tech that will be played on Feb. 28.
No. 23 Syracuse 88, North Carolina 76
Pool photos by Dennis Nett