By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina showed much more fight in its rematch with No. 3 N.C. State and even delivered a solid punch early. But that only delayed the Wolfpack’s big punch until midway through the game.
The difference from the first meeting was that an 18–0 Wolfpack run wasn’t a knockout punch. The Tar Heels battled back until the end before falling 66–58 Sunday at Carmichael Arena in front of a season-high home crowd of 4,136.
The Tar Heels (16–4, 6–4 ACC), who alternated wins and losses in going 4–4 in January, never were in the first game in Raleigh after the talented, experienced Wolfpack (19–2, 10–0) delivered an early KO.
Carolina showed how much it’s grown since that 72–45 loss.
“They sunk their teeth into the game much better than they did the last time. But we’re also a month better,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “We’ve shifted our offense a little bit. We’ve been able to grow together more. We’re playing with better purpose on the offensive end, with more clarity.”
UNC shot 37.3% in the first half and led by six at halftime but dipped to 26.3% in the pivotal third quarter. After State built a 14-point third-quarter lead, Carolina responded. An 8–0 UNC run pulled the Tar Heels within six on an Anya Poole layup with 3:03 left. A pair of Carlie Littlefield free throws cut it to five with 1:24 left, but they couldn’t come any closer after that.
“We just showed a lot of fight and we stuck together,” Littlefield said. “They hit some big shots, but we just kept at it. We kept fighting. We stayed together. And that’s just a really fun game. Obviously. I wish it was a different result, but I’m really proud of everybody.”
Except for the first State game, Carolina has shown that it’s not going to wilt when the opponents appear ready to make games into blowouts, and that happened again on Sunday.
“Resiliency is a part of what this group is,” Banghart said. “You can’t just be happy and try hard when you’re when things are going well. A sign of a really good team and, honestly, really good competitors is how does it go when it’s not going well or when fans aren’t in the stands? I love this group in all of those moments.”
Although Carolina didn’t shoot well at 32.3%, it was the best that the Tar Heels have shot in a loss this season.
In many games, Carolina has depended heavily on offensive production from sophomore guard Deja Kelly, its leading scorer on the season.
But when Kelly’s shooting slump extended to a fourth game, her Tar Heels teammates picked up the slack for a second consecutive game, particularly Kennedy Todd-Williams.
The dazzling sophomore again tied her career-high with 15 points and pulled down seven rebounds. Todd-Williams, whose only scoreless game this season was the first State game, has scored in double figures for five consecutive games after doing it in only seven of the first 15 games.
“I thought we threw the first punch at the beginning of the game. And throughout the game, I think we just played really hard,” Kennedy-Williams said, noting that the Pack is one of the top teams in the country. “I think it just goes to show you how much we can compete with other teams like that. We could be up there just like them.”
Todd-Williams seemed like the quickest player on the court for much of the game and, again, poured on the offense to go with her always-solid defense.
Banghart praised Todd-Williams’ versatility with her ability to finish on drives, set up teammates, get offensive rebounds or guard the opponent’s best player. Banghart has talked with Todd-Williams about being more aggressive, showing her lots of videos about how she can be better off the dribble.
“She can do so many things in this game, and she’s better than she was a month ago,” Banghart said. “She’s more shot-ready on the corner, which is obviously leading to more rhythm shooting. So she’s just better. She’s a total student of the game. And I think she’s one of the premier players in our league. As she keeps getting better, people will find that out more and more.”
Littlefield collected 12 points and three assists for the Tar Heels but she’s also struggling with her shooting, going 3 of 15 against State and 10 of 39 in the last four games. Ustby, after scoring 20 in the big win Thursday at Duke, was held to eight points on 3 of 10 shooting and has had single-digit points in three of the last four games.
The contrast of UNC’s depth of offensive weapons showed in the rematch. When Kelly scored 21 points in the Pack’s win in Raleigh on Jan. 6, only one other player (Ustby with 12) scored more than five points. Five Tar Heels had more than five points Sunday.
Kelly was shooting 34.7% before the last four games but is 12 of 49 since then, 5 of 38 in the last two games and, in a season-low 22 minutes, was scoreless for the first time this season. She also was scoreless when Carolina beat State in Carmichael last season.
“It’s kind of the ebb and flow of a season and that’s why they call it a team,” Banghart said. “For her to not be able to get on the scoreboard and she’s our leading scorer and for our guys to fight like that? It shows that we’re just not about one guy. We need Deja to play well. And we want her to play well just like we need everybody else to play well. I’ve been doing this too long to worry about shooting slumps. We go through more nets in this place than is imaginable. And so she’ll be raring to go for sure on Thursday and we look forward to getting her better this week in the gym.”
That didn’t take long. Kelly was out shooting jumpers on the court after the arena had emptied.
Kai Crutchfield, who guarded Kelly most of the game, led State with 16 points, with Jakia Brown-Turner scoring 13 and Elissa Cunane adding 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Carolina drove to the basket to draw fouls and created transition chances by forcing turnovers on defense to build a first-half lead.
“We were much more active, better on the ball, which allowed for turnovers off the ball. Much more active and playing with much more confidence on both sides of the ball. We’re more mature than we were a month ago and have better leadership on the court,” Banghart said.
She singled out Littlefield, who contributed in so many ways.
“She really controlled what we were doing, really, on both ends of the floor,” said Banghart, noting her improvement since the first State game. “As she goes in that way, we’re better. She played better, with much more presence, as she has been since that game. And that was a big turning point for her. I think she felt awful about how our team played and her role in it.”
UNC jumped out to a 5–0 lead and State had four turnovers before it scored its first field goal on a Raina Perez drive nearly four minutes into the game. With 4:49 left in the first quarter, that still was the Pack’s only bucket and the Tar Heels led 9–2.
“I think it was just a different mindset coming into this game,” Todd-Williams said. “Coach has been getting on us by telling us to be more aggressive so we can get in passing lanes. I think we did a really good job at being more aggressive on the defensive end so we can convert on the offensive.”
Carolina led by as many as nine points before taking a 19–13 lead into the second quarter, then pushed the lead to 12 on an Ustby 3-pointer in the first two minutes. UNC went scoreless for more than four minutes before Eva Hodgson’s 3-pointer made it 33–23 with 2:10 left.
State scored the last four first-half points to trim the Tar Heels’ lead to 33–27 by halftime. An 18–0 Pack run that began at the end of the first half gave it a 41–33 lead as State got out on transition and scored more inside. After scoring four first-half points, Cunane scored seven of State’s first nine second-half points.
UNC went scoreless for seven minutes before a Littlefield bucket with 5:03 remaining in the third quarter. UNC came to life when an Alexandra Zelaya 3-pointer and an Ustby layup capped a 7–0 run that cut State’s lead from 13 to six at 48–42 with 2:03 left. The Pack took a 50–44 edge into the final quarter.
A Hodgson drive cut Carolina’s deficit to four early in the fourth quarter but the Tar Heels never got closer after an 8–0 Pack run pushed the lead back to 12.
The Tar Heels visit Wake Forest at 8 p.m. Thursday (regional sports networks) in their only regular-season meeting. The Demon Deacons (12–9, 2–8), who didn’t have a weekend game, have lost six consecutive games after a 66–59 setback Thursday at home Thursday against Miami. Wake Forest beat the Hurricanes in Coral Gables 47–46 on Jan. 6, which is its last win.
UNC split the two regular-season games with Wake Forest last year before the Deacons beat the Tar Heels in the second round of the ACC tournament.
No. 3 N.C. State 66,
North Carolina 58
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 (4–4, 4–4 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 3 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 14 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||No. 21 Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 3 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. 5 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