By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s pattern of getting off to rough starts and trying to scramble back is one that has given the Tar Heels a small margin of error as they try to wage comebacks.
The mostly young Tar Heels are in a stretch of learning one tough lesson after another.
For the third consecutive game, UNC put up a second-half fight but couldn’t overcome early struggles. After the Tar Heels’ worst first half of the season, Florida State scored the first nine points of the second half on its way to a 61–51 victory Thursday night at Carmichael Arena.
“We came out really flat, obviously, and I think we have a little bit too much experience to do that,” Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said.
Starting point guard Deja Kelly was sick all day and on an IV at times, so Banghart gave her a pass. But the coach said there was no excuse for the rest of her team.
Banghart said her team hasn’t developed the approach they need at the start of games, particularly when it comes to ACC games at home.
“I think there’s a swag that you develop as a team and, as individuals, and we haven’t developed that,” Banghart said. “I mean, it’s that simple. There’s a swag that comes from like, ‘Oh, you’re in our gym and it’s us versus them.’ And this team really tries to feel out the other team and kind of needs to be punched before they can punch and I don’t get it because that’s not me.”
Unforced turnovers, poor shooting and a stagnant offense against the Seminoles’ relentless defensive pressure — you name it, the issues were there for the Tar Heels (8–8, 3–8). If it wasn’t for some decent defense at times for UNC, although there were issues on that end as well, it could have been a lot worse with a season-low point total.
“We played OK defensively,” said Banghart, who pointed to the 23 FSU free throw attempts as one negative. “We bailed them out too much. I think we didn’t move our feet in the post well enough defensively.”
As ugly as the FSU loss was, it could be much uglier Sunday when No. 4 N.C. State (12–1, 7–1) visits Carmichael if Carolina’s play doesn’t improve.
It was Carolina’s sixth consecutive loss to the Seminoles (6–4, 5–4 ACC), their third consecutive defeat and sixth in the last seven games. Against No. 1 Louisville (32-point deficit), Virginia Tech (nine-point deficit) and now Florida State, the Heels didn’t give up but came up short.
After falling behind by 20 points early in the second half, UNC pulled within 11 on a 13–4 run fueled by eight points from Stephanie Watts, who picked up her fourth foul early in that run. Carolina used a 9–4 run to cut the lead to 59–51 with 55.3 seconds left on a Janelle Bailey free throw but could come no closer.
Watts led UNC with 11 and Bailey collected 10 points and 10 rebounds for her 41st career double-double. The under-the-weather Kelly went scoreless with two assists in nearly 13 minutes.
Carolina got an unexpected late spark off the bench from freshman center Alexandra Zelaya, who made a 3-pointer and finished with a season-high seven points in only her third appearance in an ACC game.
“The thing holding her back is defensively, you know the speed of game and the lateral quickness,” Banghart said. “But there’s not a kid on the team that’s more liked for what she puts into it, and she’s gonna be a stud.”
Banghart was putting Zelaya in for offense and Ariel Young in for defense in the final minutes. Young scored an ACC-high seven points.
“I’m really proud of Ariel and some of our lower-minute guys who just came in and played with the urgency that they’re playing for playing time and that showed,” Banghart said.
Florida State came into the game with the worst 3-point shooting defense in the ACC at 36.5%, but UNC was 6 of 31 from 3-point range for 19.4%.
Petra Holešínská was 1 of 9 from 3-point range and scored a season-low-tying three points.
Bianca Jackson led the Noles with 19 points, Valencia Myers had 15, Morgan Jones 14 and Sayawni Lassiter 12.
Florida State went up 10–4 on a 4-point play by Lassiter with 4:50 left in the opening quarter. The Noles led 13–7 after one quarter in UNC’s lowest-scoring quarter of the season. The previous low was nine in the final quarter of the loss at Syracuse on Jan. 19.
UNC shot 22.6% in the first half, including making only two of 14 3-point attempts. UNC scored a season-low 18 points in the first half.
Florida State played without second-leading scorer Kourtney Weber, who was out with an injury. Jones, its leading scorer, picked up her third foul late in the first half when she had nine points.
Young said that the Heels need better ball movement to get into a rhythm offensively to stop falling behind early in games.
“I think it’s just starting off moving the ball, starting off good on pace,” Young said. “I feel like we kind of go through the motions a little bit in the first half and then when we get behind, we then start to run more and try to follow the game plan. I feel like if we just stick with a game plan and get into the game, that won’t happen.”
Next for UNC is another Super Bowl Sunday matchup with N.C. State. Two years ago, the Tar Heels beat the No. 7 Wolfpack 64–51 on the day of the Super Bowl. Last season, the Tar Heels won at Carmichael 66–60 to give No. 9 N.C. State its first loss of the season for a second consecutive season.
Sunday, the No. 4 Pack will have had nearly a week of rest after winning at No. 1 Louisville 74–50 on Monday.
Florida State 61, North Carolina 51
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications