By R.L. Bynum

After waiting six years to finally play in an NCAA tournament game, Stephanie Watts did all she could to make it a memorable debut.

The 2016 ACC freshman of the year did it all for North Carolina with a 29 points, seven 3-pointers and three blocks, all season-highs, but they weren’t enough to overcome a seasoned Alabama team. 

Senior Jordan Lewis scored a career-high 30 points and pulled down 11 rebounds as the No. 7-seed Tide (17–9) repeatedly fought back Carolina challenges to take an 80–71 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament Hemisfair Region on Monday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

“My mentality was I just want to bring that tradition back to Carolina and I’m going to do whatever I can to win this ball game and, obviously, we came up short,” said Watts, who plans to enter the WNBA draft. “My mentality was just I’m gonna leave it all out there. This is my last game in a Carolina uniform, which means a lot to me. So, I just wanted to leave it out there and lay the foundation for what the freshmen need to do to get further than this in the future.”

Watts’ seventh 3-pointer off of a double screen with 1:12 left cut Alabama’s lead to 78–71. A pair of Jordan Lewis free throws with 43 seconds left pushed the Tide’s lead to the final margin.

Watts’ effort was no surprise to UNC coach Courtney Banghart.

“I knew there was no way that Steph was going to come back to Carolina, do everything she could to get this team back to the NCAA tournament and then lay an egg,” Banghart said. “It was never a worry. That’s sort of what we expected and what we knew we’d get.” 

Banghart said that the biggest growth for Watts this season was on defense.

“She figured out how to use her motor to understand angles in a way that she’s much more pro-ready, and that was one of the things I talked to her about when she came back,” Banghart said. “I wanted her to be pro-ready and her ability to guard not only on the ball but off the ball.”

It was an emotional finish to the careers for Watts and Janelle Bailey (16 points and nine rebounds), who played three seasons together full of big victories. Watts said she’ll remember their 78–73 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame in 2019 and Bailey’s competitive spirit.

“You want her on your team no matter where you’re at,” said Watts, who had 19 points with Bailey scoring 16 in that upset of the Irish. “You want her on your team. She’s just a competitor. She’s a fighter. She’s just not going to hang her head down no matter what the circumstances are. So, I think she just brings that to wherever she’s at. So, we’ve had some great memories and some great games together, but she is always fun to play with.”

UNC’s Janelle Bailey, shooting against Jasmine Walker, finished her career and expects to be picked in the WNBA draft.

Banghart praised how Watts handled playing the final season of her career back where it started at UNC and thanked for coming back to Chapel Hill and giving Banghart a chance to coach her.

“She just showed such class all year long,” said Banghart, pointing out that Watts wasn’t completely healthy early in the season. “She’s adored by her teammates because it’s not about Steph Watts. It’s about Carolina. It always has been. We’re just going to work really hard to find Steph Wattses out there that love Carolina, that care about tradition and that fight like she fights even when it’s hard for her.” 

Banghart said she saw so much growth from Bailey in the two years she coached the center.

“She’s one of the more elite competitors that you’ll find,” Banghart said. “And sometimes that hurts her. And I think she’s really figured out how to curtail her competitiveness for the good of the group. She stuck with it when it was hard. For her, it’s growth and competitiveness that I’ll always value.”

No. 10-seed North Carolina (13–11) leaned on experienced players Watts and Bailey on a day that the Tar Heels’ freshmen starters Deja Kelly (1 of 13) and Alyssa Ustby (3 of 11) struggled to find their rhythm offensively and were each held to seven points. Petra Holešínská was 2 of 6 and scored six. Watts and Kelly each played all 40 minutes.

“We need these young guys on this stage,” Banghart said of the freshmen. “They need to figure out how to be big in big moments and they have been during the year. But the NCAA tournament, as you know, is totally different. I think this and the result in the journey of the NCAA tournament, it drives you in the offseason. I’ve been in these a lot and it really drives your offseason and I can assure you that our young guys are going to put the work in that will ensure that they’re even more prepared individually the next time they get this chance.”

Carolina kept putting up the points down the stretch but could never get the stops to finish the comeback because of defensive breakdowns, not limiting the Tide to one shot or good shooting by Alabama.

“We really just need to work on our on-ball defending,” Watts said, “That was a problem today, and Alabama? It’s March, so nothing’s easy. So, I give credit to Alabama for being able to convert on our lack of on-ball presence.”

The biggest problem for the Tar Heels was Lewis, who seemed to be able to get whatever she wanted on the offensive end all afternoon.

“Jordan Lewis was a woman amongst children, it looked like at times,” Banghart said. “They really affected us by getting into the paint with the dribble. We’re not elite at guarding the ball yet, athletically. We don’t have always the speed or the length that we need to do that really well. Obviously, Watts is not included in that statement. We knew against a team that was really going to push it down our throats, that was going to be a little bit of a problem for us, and that’s why we had to mix up our defenses a little bit.”

Carolina’s Alyssa Ustby, left, tries to drive on Alabama’s Jasmine Walker on Monday in San Antonio.

Twice in the third quarter, UNC cut the deficit to six: After the third foul on Alabama center Ariyah Copeland with 8:02 left in the quarter, Bailey immediately scored inside to cut the deficit to 44–38. Later, three Kelly free throws made it 51–46 with 4:18 left. 

UNC finally cut it to five on an Ustby 3-pointer with 2:38 left, but Alabama scored seven consecutive points and led 60–50 heading into the final quarter. 

Two Watts 3-pointers cut it to 65–50 with 6:46 left but a Hannah Barber 3-pointer pushed it to 71–62 with 4:34 remaining. 

Barber had 14 points and four 3-pointers for Alabama, with Jasmine Walker, a likely top-10 pick in the WNBA draft, adding 13 and Copeland 11.

Watts ended a 1-of-11 start shooting for UNC on a 3-pointer with 6:17 left in the first quarter. Alabama led by as many as nine points in the first quarter. But one of Watts’ three first-period 3-pointers was part of a 5–0 Carolina run to cut it to four before the Tide took a 22–15 edge into the second quarter.  

UNC guard Petra Holešínská attempts a 3-pointer during the Tar Heels’ season-ending loss Monday to Alabama.

A pair of Holešínská 3-pointers sliced UNC’s deficit to four with 4:33 left in the first half. Alabama scored the last four points of the half to lead 41–31 at halftime. 

With the No. 2 freshman class in the country coming in and a proven point guard joining the program as a graduate transfer (Carlie Littlefield, who is coming in from Princeton), the future is bright for the Tar Heels even without Watts, Bailey and likely Holešínská. 

No. 7 Alabama 80, No. 10 UNC 71

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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