Small ball big again for UNC as it ends road skid at Pitt

By R.L. Bynum

For the second consecutive game, going small turned up big results for North Carolina’s women.

It worked during the Tar Heels’ upset a week earlier against No. 4 N.C. State and was productive again Sunday at Pittsburgh. They even went with five guards for nearly two minutes and played guards at the four spot for all but nearly three minutes.

The Tar Heels (10–8, 5–8 ACC) gave up their usual rebounding edge but attacked the basket and drew fouls consistently on their way to an 81–72 win over the Panthers. 

Pittsburgh (4–8, 2–7) didn’t make it easy and staged a furious fourth-quarter run. The Panthers could never get closer than five points and dropped their fourth consecutive game.

With UNC’s lead at five, Stephanie Watts’ steal and layup with 53 seconds left were huge.

“I think it was big for us just because we knew if we gave up a three there, now it’s a one-possession game,” said Watts, who scored 19 points and made two free throws with 24 seconds left after Pitt had cut it to five again. “So, our biggest thing was just getting a stop that possession, whatever it took. So, it definitely gave us that little boost at the end.”

It was their first road victory in six tries this season for Carolina and the first win in five tries in program history at the Petersen Events Center. UNC won back-to-back ACC games for only the second time this season (beat Syracuse on Dec. 17 and Wake Forest on Dec. 20).

“With the exception, honestly, of the Florida State game, I thought we’ve been playing much better,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart, whose team’s Thursday home game with Boston College got postponed. “I was a little bit worried about that rust and our kids answered the call in that first quarter, which was good to see.”

Janelle Bailey scored 15 of her 22 points in the first half and Kennedy Todd-Williams put up her third double-double of the season with 12 points and a game-high 10 rebounds in addition to four assists and one steal. 

Janelle Bailey drives against Pittsburgh’s Cynthia Ezeja on her way to a 22-point game Sunday at Pittsburgh.

“We know every game is a ‘must win’ and we know we have to come out with energy,” Bailey said. “The games we don’t come out with energy don’t go so well for us. So that was really big for us. We’re just playing for each other.”

Alyssa Ustby (eight points) and Petra Holešínská (six points) didn’t have big scoring games but contributed in other ways. Ustby had four rebounds, an assist and a steal while Holešínská contributed five rebounds and a team-leading six assists. UNC made 26 of 31 free-throw attempts while Pittsburgh only attempted 16 free throws.

Banghart said that she went small against Pittsburgh because of its four-guard lineup, which puts a lot of pressure on post players when it comes to switching on screens.

“I think we have the luxury to kind of make that game-time decision, but there’s a lot of things we like about the small lineup,” Banghart said.

Banghart pointed out that Ustby, a 6–1 freshman, was a post player in high school, so playing the four spot isn’t as big of a challenge for her. Ustby even played center for a couple of minutes.

“I think when we do have to go small, we understand that we have to get out and run,” Watts said. “Together, we get out and run the floor really well. So, whoever gets the rebound is able to push it up and the other ones are running. So, I think that’s been really productive when we have to do that.”

There were always four guards playing with Bailey, and she said that there were plenty of advantages to that lineup.

“We’re able to switch a lot more, and I’m able to stay home some more, and just be more aggressive both on offense and defense and then just getting out and running,” said Bailey, who was 10 of 11 at the free-throw line. The 10 free throws tied her career-high. “That’s something that we talk about a lot and something I’m sure other teams know we do, is we want to get out and run. And so converting those fast-break points helped push us forward to later in the game and just get us in the flow of things. We have a big lineup. We have a small lineup. This team is very versatile.” 

North Carolina’s big issue much of the season has been dependable point-guard play. There are no players in the rotation with exclusive high school experience at point guard.

Enter Todd-Williams, who can play all five positions and has filled that point-guard role nicely, particularly in the last couple of games. She was +11 in the first half and +7 for the game. She had three turnovers but UNC had an ACC-low nine.

Stephanie Watts had 19 points and three 3-pointers Sunday in UNC’s win at Pittsburgh.

Todd-Williams injected instant offense off the bench in the first quarter with five points, three rebounds and an assist in a 12–2 early run. That pushed UNC ahead 15–9 with 3:09 left in the first quarter on a Watts 3-pointer. The Heels took a 21–13 lead into the second quarter and never trailed again.

“She’s coming with a lot of confidence,” Bailey said. “She’s one of those players, it’s rare — I’m actually so jealous when I see one of those players who can play any position — I wish that could be me. She’s one of those energized players who just can go rebound, can shoot, attack the basket and also she was just really confident about games and has been for a while now.”

Watts says that having a point guard who can rebound is a big weapon for the Tar Heels.

“When she rebounds, she can push the ball up the floor and find us,” Watts said. “She has a really good IQ in that sense and just always plays with a lot of energy crashing the O-boards, so she always brings us that spark.” 

The Tar Heels led by as many as 11 points in the first half before taking a 42–33 halftime lead, making 15 of 18 free-throw attempts in the first half. Three Pittsburgh starters had two fouls by halftime as the Panthers gave up the most points in a first half this season.  

Pittsburgh tried to be physical with Bailey but she wouldn’t back down. She also showed her versatility by making several jump shots.

“Janelle was a warrior for sure tonight,” Banghart said. “She’s a physical kid, so she gets a lot of contact. She’s really done a good job containing herself having to play through a lot more contact than most other players have to play through.”

UNC kept the pressure on in the third quarter, using balanced scoring to take a 62–48 lead, their biggest of the game, into the final quarter before Pitt started to chip away at the lead. 

A Destiny Strother 3-pointer cut UNC’s lead to 69–62 with 6:14 left, then both teams were scoreless until a Jayla Everett layup with 4:21 remaining. But Todd-Williams responded with a 3-pointer 14 seconds later to shove the lead back to 72–64. 

Two Dayshanette Harris free throws with 2:48 left cut UNC’s lead to 72–65 before Bailey’s 3-point play pushed the lead to 75–66 23 seconds later.

“That big and-one play was huge,” Banghart said. 

A 3-pointer from Everett, who led Pitt with 22 points, cut UNC’s lead to 75–69 with 2:02 left. After Watts’ steal and layup, Everett cut it to 77–72 on three free throws with 40 seconds left. But Watts’ free throws put the game away.  

The Panthers never got any closer. The Tar Heels play the second of three consecutive road games Thursday, visiting Clemson (10–9, 5–9 after Sunday’s 72–65 home loss to Wake Forest) at 7 p.m. (ACC Network Extra) before visiting No. 4 N.C. State (13–2, 8–2)  at noon next Sunday (ACC Network). The Tigers have lost three consecutive games.

North Carolina 81, Pittsburgh 72

ACC pool photos

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