By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s women drove home a senior night message to the NCAA tournament committee: the Tar Heels belong in the field.

Carolina rebounded from a loss at No. 2 N.C. State with a dominating 84–59 victory Thursday at Carmichael Arena over Georgia Tech, one of the ACC’s best teams, behind a career-high-tying 22 points from Deja Kelly and strong games from the Tar Heels’ three seniors. 

UNC (12–9, 6–9 ACC), which led by as many as 32 points to win their fourth consecutive game against the Yellow Jackets (13–7, 11–6), solidified their chances of earning a berth.

Carolina entered the game listed in Charlie Creme’s NCAA tournament projection as being in the “last four in” and a No. 11 seed. At 34 in the NET rankings after the victory, the Tar Heels appear to be in good shape.

“I’m just happy for us because this was a game that we needed,” said Janelle Bailey, who was one of three seniors who helped deliver that message to the committee with big games. “We needed desperately to make sure that we’re making our claim that we need to be in a tournament. We deserve to be in a tournament.”  

Janelle Bailey put up her 42nd career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Bailey, who collected 12 points and 10 rebounds for her 42nd career double-double, said that she thought a lot before Thursday’s game about having to watch seniors lose on senior night the last three seasons. She was intent on a different outcome for her, Stephanie Watts and Petra Holešínská.

“Senior night just was not working out,” said Bailey, who remembers a particularly painful loss on Jamie Cherry’s senior night when Syracuse hit a barrage of 3-pointers. “I refused to lose and I knew this game mattered. I was thinking about that in the back of my head all week leading up until this game weeks ago. I’m just making sure that I got a win on this court one last time and that we all got to play together.”

It was the first senior-night win for UNC since 2015, and the seniors had plenty to do with the blowout victory. But it was cruel timing for senior night since the game was played a day before Carolina begins welcoming a limited number of fans to home games. 

One fan who did show up for the game was Roy Williams.

Watts scored nine of UNC’s first 11 points and finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists. Holešínská netted 13 points and three 3-pointers.

“I just knew this was kind of a must-win for us,” Watts said. “I just wanted to come out with as much energy as I could and I was just ready to play. We played a really good team and came out from the jump just ready to play. So, I was really happy with our progress and how we’re progressing through the season because it’s not over yet.”

Stephanie Watts, left, Coach Courtney Banghart, Janelle Bailey and Petra Holešínská had plenty to be happy about Thursday during postgame senior night ceremonies.

With senior parents not allowed on the court because of pandemic restrictions, they all recorded videos that were played on the big screens. Holešínská was one of the few people in the arena who knew her parents’ message since it was delivered in Czech.

“I remember I had told her I would love to talk to your parents just to welcome them to Carolina and let them know that I’ve got her,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “And she said, ‘Coach, that would be great, but they don’t speak any English.’ And so, I haven’t studied Czech so we can’t communicate, I guess it’s going to have to instead be a love language for how we feel about Petra.”

Holešínská played well in her final game at Carmichael and got a special moment afterward.

“It was really sweet to see my parents,” Holešínská said. “I know you guys don’t understand what they were saying but it was really nice to see them. I wish they were here for senior night.” 

Kelly, the ACC’s rookie of the week, continued her run of confident play with two 3-pointers and four assists along with the 22 points to match her best previous effort against Syracuse. Alyssa Ustby collected 10 points and six rebounds.

“Sometimes, the only way you can really gain confidence is to put the work in and success follows, and she’s really put in the work,” Banghart said of Kelly. “She’s finding her way a little bit. She’s attacking possessions better, which is helping her play better. That is kind of leading to more and more success.”

UNC, which has won four of its last five, got out on transition against the Yellow Jackets and drove the lane with ease in the half-court much of the night as the Heels shot 50% from the floor and 57.1% from 3-point range (8 of 14). 

With Georgia Tech allowing the fewest average points per game in the league, Banghart wanted to push the pace.

“They like to grind it out,” she said. “And that means you have to really value the possession, which I don’t think we’ll ever be great at with this group. So, we knew we had to try to play fast. We really tried to get stops to scores and force their size to move. And, fortunately, they couldn’t catch us.”

Carolina built an insurmountable lead in the first half by holding the Jackets to 33% shooting from the floor. 

“Defensively, we started the game in a really strong lockup position, so we knew we had to play on both ends to beat a good team,” Banghart said. “I think the kids were really focused on senior night to get a big win. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Bailey scored with power moves to the hoop with drives and, in one case, juking off a defender before going to the basket.

“I just try to make sure I have some stuff in my pocket, just in case I need to use it,” Bailey said. ”Just try to mix it up. I feel like that’s just been what I had tried to get to, or to evolve to, over my career. I just don’t want to be one-dimensional. Find a way to impact the game past just scoring,  whether that’s helping my team on defense or being the anchor down there or just being versatile. I feel the more versatile you are, the harder you are to guard.”

It was Carolina’s first league game this season with five players scoring in double figures.

Two short Kelly jumpers to end a nearly three-minute scoring drought gave the Tar Heels a 17–14 edge after one quarter. UNC then scored the first seven points of the second quarter to complete an 11–0 run. 

UNC didn’t attempt a 3-pointer until Holešínská’s 3-pointer with 7:41 left in the first half, and she quickly added a jumper. A Bailey drive, an Ustby layup off of a Kelly pass, a Kelly jumper and another Holešínská 3 capped a 14–0 run to push the lead to 38–19. 

Ustby made a short jumper at the halftime buzzer to give Carolina a 46–24 halftime lead, its biggest of the ACC season. After an Ustby steal and layup in the first 14 seconds of the second half, the only question was the margin of victory as the Heels took a 69–41 lead into the final quarter.  

The Tar Heels finish the regular season at Virginia Tech (13–7, 8–7 after Thursday’s 70–64 win at Clemson) at 2 p.m. Sunday (ACC Network Extra) in the teams’ third meeting and second in Blacksburg, Va. The Hokies won 66–54 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 14 and 73–69 Jan. 31 in Blacksburg. 

On the original schedule, both would be playing respective rivals Virginia and Duke, but those programs opted out early in the season. 

Carolina 84, Georgia Tech 59

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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