By R.L. Bynum
GREENSBORO — For the second consecutive season, Wake Forest ended North Carolina’s ACC tournament after one game. Thanks to some big UNC victories down the stretch, though, the Demon Deacons didn’t end its season like they did a year ago.
Needing wins to earn an NCAA berth, the Deacons came into the game looking like the hungrier team and were a nightmare from the perimeter in an 83–71 win Thursday in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“They were desperate for a win,” said Janelle Bailey, who put up her 43rd career double-double and third in a row with 12 points and 10 rebounds. “As soon as we found out we were playing them, we knew that they were going to be desperate and we were not desperate for a win. I feel like they just came out with more firepower.”
With an NCAA berth safely tucked away, North Carolina (13–10) didn’t have the same urgency as Wake Forest (12–11) and it showed at times after the teams split a pair of close regular-season games.
“Finally we can breathe and we hadn’t breathed in literally a month,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said of the relief of being off the bubble and NCAA-bound. “Every game was like this urgent ‘you have to win or else or your season’s over’ and then, today, instead we’re actually playing for a better seed. I think we took our foot off the gas a little bit. But we’ll get it back on when we need it.”
With the best offensive game of her freshman season, Alyssa Ustby looked like she was going to win the game for the Tar Heels herself with a season-high 23 points, nine rebounds and two assists. But, like many of her teammates, shortcomings on the defensive end were too much to overcome.
She was taken out during one first-half timeout and got an emphatic message about defense when she got to the bench.
“They were just trying to help me get my angles better on the switching screens and that’s something I didn’t execute right off the bat in this game, which hurt us,” Ustby said.
The perimeter decided the game as Wake Forest made 10 of 17 3-point attempts, led by a season-high seven and 29 points from Jewel Spear. Tied for her second-best perimeter game? The six 3-pointers she made in the Deacons’ loss at UNC.
Carolina, meanwhile, was only 4 of 16 from 3-point range as Petra Holešínská missed all eight shots, including four from 3-point range, for a season-low two points.
“Today was just about working hard, hustle plays,” said Ustby, who got to plenty of loose balls, got out on the break for layups and got key rebounds when Carolina needed them.
It was Ustby’s best offensive game since she scored 20 in the home win over N.C. State.
“The fact that she wasn’t on the all-rookie team, I think, was a complete oversight,” Banghart said. “There’s no way this team is in the NCAA tournament without Alyssa Ustby. No way. So, I thought we sort of challenged her to show whoever didn’t think she was good enough. She’s special. She can do a lot of things well, led most of all by the fact she’s got a winning spirit that carries her way through her effort.”
UNC had four players score in double figures, getting 19 from Deja Kelly and 15 from Stephanie Watts as they accounted for all of the Tar Heels’ 3-pointers with two each.
Ivana Raca (21 points and 12 rebounds) and Gina Conti (13 points and 12 assists) both had double-doubles for the Deacons.
“It’s pretty uncharacteristic that we would allow defense to be our [Achilles’] heel – I think we’ve been pretty good defensively all year long,” Banghart. said. “Not good enough effort in March to get stops. They obviously came in, guns a-firing. And there’ll be plenty of defensive breakdowns when we break the game down. We’ll be able to say six inches here, a big play there …”
Bailey became the fifth player in program history with 1,700 career points (which she surpassed in the first half) and 1,000 career rebounds (which she reached in the second half), joining Tracy Reid (2,200 points and 1,065 rebounds), Charlotte Smith (2,094 and 1,200), Erlana Larkins (1,927 and 1,173 rebounds) and Dawn Royster (1,778 and 1,107).
The production for Bailey, who has 1,708 points and 1,001 rebounds for her career, and UNC’s balance on offense weren’t enough as the Tar Heels struggled during long stretches to solve Wake Forest’s zone defense.
“Offense tonight was not working for us and defense wasn’t working for us, either, especially when you’re not getting stops and you go down and you have a chance to score and we’re not converting,” Bailey said. “It was just like a complete circle, just over and over again.”
When Carolina wasn’t able to get out in transition, it had trouble generating offense against Wake Forest’s collapsing defense.
“We didn’t move the ball or our bodies at the pace and the consistency that we have been all year,” Banghart said.
Watts scored six of UNC’s first 10 points on drives, but Wake Forest made its first four 3-point attempts to take an early 18–10 lead. The Deacs led 25–16 after making 5 of 8 3-point attempts in the first quarter.
UNC missed its first four 3-point attempts until Kelly made one from the left wing with 7:04 left in the first half, after the Deacs had pushed their lead to 14. Kelly added another 3 and her three-point play on a drive with 4:10 left to cut the deficit to 33–26.
A Watts layup on the break off of a long Holešínská pass, an Ustby follow shot and a pair of Holešínská free throws cut Wake’s lead to 39–34 by halftime. Kelly scored half of UNC’s 18 second-quarter points but went to the bench with her second foul with 2:56 left in the first half.
A Watts 3-pointer, an Ustby fast-break layup and an inside bucket by Bailey tied it at 47 with 4:52 left in the third quarter with an 11–5 run. An inside bucket by Ustby gave UNC its first lead of the game at 49–47 with 4:28 left.
Three UNC turnovers in the last two minutes of the third quarter sparked a 6–0 Deacons run. They led 58–54 lead heading into the fourth quarter and never trailed again. UNC cut it to 67–65 on a Watts 3-pointer with 5:26 left but never came closer.
Now, the Tar Heels get a long break before they find out where they fall in the NCAA bracket March 15 on Selection Monday.
No. 9 Wake Forest 82, No. 8 UNC 71
ACC pool photos