By R.L. Bynum
Against the best defense in the country and one of the tallest teams, the No. 20 North Carolina women had a tough time finding an offensive rhythm all day.
The Tar Heels countered that with some of their best defense of the season in stretches but it wasn’t enough. No. 15 Georgia Tech pulled away in the fourth quarter and led by as many as 22 points in a 55–38 victory Sunday at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.
UNC (15–3, 5–3 ACC) fell to 1–3 in league road games this season ahead of Thursday’s visit to No. 21 Duke. That was the lowest scoring output in 10 years. No. 24 UNC scored a school-record low in an 86–35 loss at No. 3 Connecticut on Jan. 16, 2012.
After a 13-game unbeaten streak and a top-five NET ranking, one reporter asked UNC coach Courtney Banghart if UNC was a top-five team.
“Are we top five in the country? No, we’re not there yet,” Banghart said. “I said not yet. We’re just not. When you play these teams — this is a top 15 team — you have to be really good to beat them. We told our guys that and I know they wanted to be really good. And the fact of the matter is they weren’t. They were not really good.”
As Banghart quipped, it’s “not like Carolina is getting better and everybody is eating bonbons.”
The Tar Heels have proven that they are talented, but the young roster is still trying to figure out how to compete against ranked teams.
“Our guys don’t back down from the challenge. As long as we use every opportunity to get better, I think we’ll be just fine,” Banghart said.
The Jackets (15–4, 6–2) came into the game leading the country in scoring defense (46.8 points per game) and second in field-goal percentage defense (32.5%) and showed why.
After giving up 23 first-quarter points, the Tar Heels ramped up the defense and only allowed 32 in the final three quarters. The good defense wasn’t nearly enough because of how the Jackets disrupted UNC’s offense.
“That first quarter, they really pounced on us. We were really reactionary defensively and we know against a team with size, we’ve got to use our feet,” Banghart said.
The teams that have beaten Georgia Tech have done it by shooting well from the perimeter and not trying to create offense through drives and inside play. The Jackets’ starters include 6–5 Nerea Hermosa (6 points, 5 rebounds), 6–4 Lorela Cubaj (9 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and 6–2 Digna Strautmane (14 points and 11 rebounds). Guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (12 points, six assists) is 5–9, but physical.
“We have to be willing to get uncomfortable and not just do what we want to do,” Banghart said. “We just kept trying the same thing over and over again. And their size? They’re just a giant, giant team. We haven’t seen that much size across the roster. Even their small guys, they’re just physical. So, they’re bigger at every spot and we just tried to play their game not ours and that obviously hurt us.”
Instead of counteracting Tech’s length and height on defense with crisp passing and perimeter shooting, there was too much dribbling in the backcourt at times. The Tar Heels’ insistence on driving the lane frustrated Banghart because the height disparity made scoring difficult.
“The closer you get to the basket, obviously the more advantage it is to them because the size can be a factor. We just kept doing the same thing,” Banghart said. “The weakness of this team has never been a lack of effort. And, so, they just play harder. We’ve been good all year kind of adjusting and going to plan B or Plan C, as needed. This game, for whatever reason, they just stayed in plan A and they were hell-bent on proving that they can do that way. Didn’t go well for them.”
UNC tied its season-low with three 3-pointers after never notching fewer than four in an ACC game.
Banghart doesn’t like the trend in recent games of what she calls “shot trepidation,” which she says can be contagious. Carlie Littlefield was 2 of 7 from the floor and 1 of 3 from 3-point range and finished with five points and five rebounds.
“I keep trying to implore to my guys that I think they’re better perimeter shooters,” Banghart said. “We get into the paint and we just force something up instead of moving it, and then our guys are a little shot-hesitant on the perimeter. That’s a problem. They’ll have to look themselves in the eye and Carlie’s going to have to be better in that area for sure. And she will be.”
Sophomore Kennedy Todd-Williams scored a team-high 10 points and freshman Destiny Adams (top photo) had some impressive minutes off the bench, adding six points and four rebounds. UNC’s top two scorers on the season, sophomores Deja Kelly (six points) and Alyssa Ustby (four points), both were held to season-low point totals.
The Jackets’ defense had nothing to do with UNC shooting a season-low 27.3% from the free-throw line, though (3 of 11).
“They put a body on all of us. So, I think it kind of shocked us a bit or bothered us,” Todd-Williams said.
There were ominous statistical parallels to Carolina’s 72–45 loss at No. 4 N.C. State.
UNC had more turnovers than field goals until late in the game (finishing with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers) after 17 turnovers and 15 field goals against the Wolfpack. Those two games are the Tar Heels’ worst shooting performances (23.1% at State and 29.1% at Tech).
The nine points in the first and fourth quarters were the fewest since Carolina scored seven against the Pack in the first and fourth quarters. The 19 points in each half were UNC’s season-lows, worse than the 23 and 22 points against the Wolfpack. The Heels scored a season-low 38 points after scoring 45 against State.
Unlike the State game, however, Carolina didn’t let the early punch from Georgia Tech become a knockout blow and rallied to come within eight late in the third quarter after trailing by 20 in the second quarter.
“Georgia Tech is a good team but I think we can compete with them,” Todd-Williams said. “So, I think it’s just about toughness. I think one of our coaches said before the game that it takes a lot of toughness. And I think we just have to carry that on and stay by that, especially with these road games.”
Littlefield said the Jackets’ length and size made them one of the toughest defensive teams Carolina has faced.
“There were a lot of arms and so they did a great job of collapsing on the paint,” Littlefield said. “And then we weren’t necessarily finding those openings along the perimeter.”
Kelly was 3 of 12 shooting as the Yellow Jackets’ size on screens created problems for the 5-8 sophomore guard.
“They clog it really well, so there’s not a lot of space for her,” Banghart said.
Georgia Tech made three consecutive shots in a 7–0 run to take an 18–7 lead on Strautmane’s jumper. The Jackets took a 23–9 edge into the second quarter after shooting 71.4% with three 3-pointers while UNC had five turnovers and four field goals.
Carolina went more than seven minutes without a point before Adams’ 3-point play and a driving Littlefield layup started a 10–2 run to trim a 20-point deficit to 32–19 by halftime.
After UNC got only one offensive rebound in the first half, Banghart used a small lineup with Ustby at the five in the first two minutes of the second half, trying to shake up the offense.
“You either have to be big or fast and the best players are both,” Banghart said. “We’re not big, so we have to be fast. If we get stuck in mud, then we’re just not big enough or physical enough.”
The Yellow Jackets went 10½ minutes without a field goal, including the final seven of the first half, before Cubaj’s short jumper with 3:31 left in the third quarter. UNC couldn’t take full advantage of that drought and still trailed by 10 after that bucket and took a 43–29 deficit into the final quarter.
“During halftime, we knew what we had to do,” Todd-Williams said of the better third-quarter defense. “So, being in the right positions, not helping off shooters as much. I think we stayed connected. And I think that it just shows a lot.”
Instead of making a run in the fourth quarter, Carolina missed its first four shots and the Jackets started the period with a 7–0 run. By the time UNC ended a nearly 6½-minute scoring drought with a pair of Adams free throws, it trailed 50–31.
The Tar Heels head into rivalry week, visiting Duke (13–4, 4–3) at 7 p.m. Thursday (ESPN3) and playing host to No. 4 N.C. State at 4 p.m. Sunday. It will be the first visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium in nearly two years to face the Blue Devils, who beat Virginia 57–48 at home Sunday night. The Wolfpack (18–2, 9–0) held off Virginia Tech — a team that UNC blew out — at home Sunday for a 51–45 victory.
UNC 100, N.C. State 80
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|9||92–47 win, 1–0||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||89–33 win, 2–0||Road||Charlotte|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||79–46 win, 4–0||Road||TCU|
|26||72–59 win, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||58–37 win, 6–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
|December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)|
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, 12–0, 2–0||Home||Syracuse|
|January (3–3, 3–3 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 4 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 19 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 18 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||No. 21 Duke|
|30||Sunday, 4, ACCN||Home||No. 4 N.C. State|
|3||Thursday, 8, RSN||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Home||Miami|
|10||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||Sunday, 1, ACCNX||Road||Virginia Tech|
|17||Thursday, 6, RSN||Home||No. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||No. 21 Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photo via @UNC_Basketball