By R.L. Bynum
No. 18 North Carolina has some big goals that it can meet in the last week of the regular season and easily kept them possible Thursday night.
Beating a feisty Virginia team on its senior night wasn’t easy, though.
The Tar Heels led by 21 in the first half but Virginia fought back and made them earn a physical 68–57 victory. Carolina battled through its worst perimeter shooting night of the season by again being tough on defense and repeatedly beating the Cavaliers in transition.
UNC (22–5, 12–5 ACC) has a shot at an ACC Tournament double-bye if they finish off a regular-season sweep of Duke at 4 p.m. Sunday on senior day at Carmichael Arena (ACC Network). The Tar Heels potentially could be a first- and second-round NCAA tournament host.
“We like where we are right now and we’ve got one more game to solidify the truth, which is I like where we are at the end,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “It’s fun to sit here and talk about the various ways that my team finds a way to win basketball games.”
The double-bye and the No. 4 seed will be a reality with a win over Duke if N.C. State wins at Virginia Tech on Sunday. UNC can finish with no worse than the No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament, and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, which comes with home games in the first two rounds, is possible.
“Getting that double-bye would mean a lot for us because it’s very late in the season. Bodies are hurting, and it’s a mental thing,” said UNC center Anya Poole, who had eight points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. “It will give us more time to prepare.”
UNC’s fifth consecutive win over Virginia was its eighth road victory, matching the total of the 2012–13 team that went 29–7.
Deja Kelly led four Tar Heels scoring in double figures with 16. Alyssa Ustby collected 15 points and seven rebounds, Carlie Littlefield scored 13 and Kennedy Todd-Williams had 11 points.
UNC stormed to a 30–11 lead after the first quarter and still led by 21 in the third quarter. But after shooting 60.6% in the first half, UNC shot only 27.3% in the second half to give Virginia hope. The Cavaliers never got closer than eight points, though.
“We started off with really good energy, pushing the pace,” Kelly said. “Offensively, I thought we started off pretty good. We got a little sloppy toward the third and a little bit of fourth. But we just stayed consistent with our energy and that’s what got us the win.”
Carolina overcome a 1 of 14 night from 3-point range (7.1%) by scoring 40 inside points to hold off a determined Cavaliers team, just as it had to do in winning the Jan. 20 game in Chapel Hill 61–52.
“They’re just a physical team,” Kelly said. “And I think that, just us as a team, we’ve just got to learn to play through that. I think just playing through their physicality, being physical back.”
Shooting can come and go at times for this Tar Heels team but their defense has been consistently tough all season. Add good inside play Thursday and that helped them score nearly as many layups (19) as Virginia field goals (21) while swiping 12 steals (three each from Todd-Williams and Kelly).
Banghart said it’s a concerted effort to run as much as possible and that her team can do it well because they are in such good shape.
“These guys are running for 40 minutes. They’re not jogging. They’re not picking and choosing, they are running,” she said. “And, at some point, we’re going to break your will because we’re just going to keep going. You can’t coach a run game and coach a transition game on the blackboard. These guys are willing to lace up their shoes and run. And so you know that’s on them and it’s why we’re so good.”
Carolina’s 20 turnovers were the most since committing 19 in the first meeting with Virginia, although Banghart pointed out that seven of those turnovers came from player-control fouls.
When Virginia was making runs in the second half, Banghart said that the Tar Heels’ offense wasn’t quite as efficient.
“I think we have to work a little bit harder to get great shots for each other,” she said. “I think it’s a vision thing. These guys have to read the game a little bit faster. I thought they were a little slow to their reads tonight. So, we’ll show him on film that we can be faster on Sunday.”
Carolina quickly took control over Virginia (5–21, 2–13) with a 14–2 lead as Littlefield scored six points in the first 4:29.
UNC led by 21 early in the second quarter. But Virginia went on an 8–1 as the Tar Heels went without a field goal for more than three minutes before a Poole bucket. Ustby scored six points in the final 1:26 as the Tar Heels took a 47–30 halftime lead behind 15 layups and 32 inside points.
Since UNC’s first meeting with Virginia, the Cavaliers added Connecticut transfer Mir McLean. She had scored in double figures in six consecutive games but was held to six points after briefly leaving the court with a leg injury early in the game.
Amandine Toi led Virginia with 14 points, with London Clarkston scoring 12 and Taylor Valladay 11.
Dukes (16–11, 7–10) comes into Sunday’s regular-season finale off a 67–51 home loss Thursday to Boston College.
No. 18 Carolina 68, Virginia 57
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||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 14 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 22 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 3 N.C. State|
|February (6–1, 5–1 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||85–38 win, 18–4, 8–4||Home||Miami|
|10||64–54 win, 19–4, 9–4||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||66–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5||Road||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 4 Louisville|
|20||64–49 win, 21–5, 11–5||Road||Florida State|
|24||68–57 win, 22–5, 12–5||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, 4, ACCN||Home||Duke|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications