By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — One game after putting her shooting slump behind her, North Carolina’s Stephanie Watts kicked her game into overdrive, missed the program’s first triple-double by one assist and was a catalyst on both ends of the court.
She led a Carolina rally from seven points down with 4:46 left to snap a three-game losing streak and a three-game Notre Dame win streak for a 78–73 victory Sunday afternoon at Carmichael Arena.
“I could not be happier for our group,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “They’ve continued to fight and continued to get better.”
It was only Carolina’s third win in 12 tries over Notre Dame (8–6, 6–4 ACC) in program history. UNC won two years ago in Carmichael by the same score as Sunday.
When Watts, who scored 10 of UNC’s first 17 points, wasn’t hitting jumpers, she was facilitating offense for the rest of the team. She finished with a season-high 25 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high nine assists while adding three steals and two blocks and drawing charges on the defensive end.
Watts, who made four of nine 3-point attempts, was playing so well that she didn’t come out of the game until she picked up her second foul 17½ minutes into the game.
“I just knew my team needed me to come out with energy,” said Watts, who had no idea she was an assist away from a triple-double. “I try to bring energy every single day, bring that consistently. I think when you do that, good things happen.”
Watts was fouled after her last rebound, following a miss by Notre Dame’s Maddy Westbeld with seven seconds left and UNC leading by four. Watts then put the game away with three free throws after that.
“Honestly, with the way that she played against Syracuse, she’s back,” Banghart said. “She’s not gonna make them all. But, you know, she impacts the game on so many levels and she’s an older guy, so we need her experience.”
What was Watts’ mentality when UNC faced that late deficit?
“Winning this game,” she said. “Everything it takes from me, I’m going to do. Locking in. My man’s not going to be the one to score. So, I don’t know what else is going on but you know who’s hurting us is not going to be the one to do it anymore.”
Notre Dame’s Dana Mabry scored 11 of her 23 points and made three of her five 3-pointers in the third quarter. With Watts pestering her on defense, Mabry only had three points in the fourth quarter.
Petra Holešínská, who also poured on the offense with a season-high six 3-pointers and 24 points, said that Watts brings so much to the team.
“Everyone knows she’s a great shooter,” said Holešínská, who was honored before the game for reaching the 10,000-point career milestone. “But she impacts the game in multiple different ways. She can rebound. She can pass. She usually guards their best player, so her impact is huge.
“I’m really happy for her,” Holešínská said of Watts. “She’s been working really hard. Obviously, she was in a little bit of a slump. But she came to practice every single day just locked in and she was ready to get better. Our whole team, we had confidence in her. We knew that she’s a great shooter and it was just a matter of time.”
Carolina didn’t want a repeat of what happened at Syracuse, when the Tar Heels played well for three quarters but then let the game get away in the final quarter.
“Our main thing before the game was just like, let’s keep our foot on the gas from last game,” Watts said. “We thought we played with a lot of energy last game. But let’s just keep our foot on the gas and keep going. And I think down the stretch in the fourth quarter that’s exactly what we did. We just didn’t let up.”
Holešínská said that having Watts as an additional perimeter threat helped divert attention away from her against Notre Dame.
“Oh, definitely,” Holešínská said. “I feel like if you’re the only shooter, you come into the game and everyone’s like, ‘shooter, shooter.’ But if you have two on the team or three, it’s really hard for the defense, especially in their 2–3 [zone]. They don’t really know what to focus on or where to help or stuff like that. So, it definitely helps me a lot.”
UNC (8–5, 3–5) moved to 8–0 this season with four players scoring in double figures as Alyssa Ustby and Janelle Bailey each added 12 points.
“I’m very disappointed in the outcome of the game, but hats off to North Carolina,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said. “We just have to get better, be smarter taking care of the basketball and complete the game.”
The Tar Heels had some of their best ball movement of the season and that led to 22 of their 29 field goals being assisted and 44.6% shooting from the floor. The 10 3-pointers and 22 assists were team-best totals in ACC play.
“Our team had discussed ball movement, getting everyone involved,” Watts said. “Because, when we get good shots, we make them. So, it’s just a matter of getting ball movement, getting the defense to rotate a little bit before we find our [shot] and I think we did that well — finding each other, getting everybody involved, having really good ball movement.”
With Watts on the bench, the Irish went on a 7–3 run to trim UNC’s lead that was once 14 in the second quarter to 39–35 by halftime.
A 17–3 Notre Dame run tied it at 39 before a Watts 3-pointer and an Ustby layup off of a Watts assist put UNC back up 44–39.
Watts rolled her an ankle and came out of the game with 7:17 left in the third quarter. Notre Dame took advantage of that by going on a 14–3 run to go up 54–47 with 4:51 left in the third quarter before she could return.
“I was really annoyed, just because I felt like we were on a little bit of a run. We were all in. We’re playing really well,” Watts said of having to come out. “It was just a really bad time while we were on a run, so I knew I was coming back somehow, some way. So, it was just a matter of getting taped up and how quickly I could do it. I was a little bit nervous but it wasn’t too bad.”
Banghart was just as frustrated when she wondered if Watts could return.
“Wherever her weaknesses are, they are involving dynamicism,” Banghart said. “So, when she went down, you lose one of your speed guys north-south. So she impacts the game in so many ways. So when she went down you’re just kind of like, “All right, here we go.’ ”
Notre Dame took a 58–54 lead into the final quarter, then pushed its lead to 70–63 on a Mikki Vaughn layup with 4:36 left before UNC went on a 9–0 run.
An inside bucket from UNC’s Malu Tshitenge, a steal and layup by Watts, a Bailey free throw and a 3-pointer and a drive by Holešínská put UNC up 73–72 with 1:42 left.
After a free throw by Notre Dame’s Anaya Peoples tied it with 1:18 left, Holešínská made a pair of free throws to put the Heels up 75–73 with 1:04 left.
It was a return to Chapel Hill for sixth-year graduate student Destinee Walker, who transferred to Notre Dame after two seasons at UNC. She made the ACC All-Freshman team and was twice UNC’s defensive player of the year.
“We played in the McDonald’s games together, the Jordan Brand Classic together and then came into school together, so to be in different jerseys now, of course, it’s different,” Watts said of Walker, who scored six points.
Walker and Watts guarded each other at times.
Freshman point guard Deja Kelly started, but scored one point played a season-low 12 minutes. Here previous low in ACC play was 26 minutes in the second loss to Miami.
Sophomore point guard Kennady Tucker, who played less than two minutes in the loss at Syracuse, has left the UNC program, UNC confirmed. She has entered the transfer portal. Tucker scored 10 points in nearly 65 minutes of action in seven games this season. Last season, Tucker played in all 30 games, averaging 1.6 points per game.
The Tar Heels now face their most difficult challenge of the season Thursday at 7 p.m. when they visit No. 1 Louisville (14–0, 7–0 after Sunday’s 65–63 win at Wake Forest) in a game that was postponed twice. It will be the Cardinals’ third game in five days because they also face Miami in a Tuesday afternoon home game.
North Carolina 78, Notre Dame 73
Updated UNC statistics
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications