By Bob Sutton
GREENSBORO — North Carolina’s women’s basketball team invested so much into the season.
For all the intangibles that so often worked out for the No. 5-seed and 17th-ranked Tar Heels, they could have used something else when reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
A little more height.
The task was simply too tall for North Carolina throughout portions of the game against tournament favorite South Carolina.
“They had length at every position, so that always makes it hard,” North Carolina guard Carlie Littlefield said. ”But I’m really just proud of us and what we were still able to do out there. We battled back.
No. 1 South Carolina’s size wore out the Tar Heels in a 69–61 decision in front of an announced crowd of 8,811 on Friday night at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“This is a big stage,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said. “I told them that you get here because of how you handle your business along the way. I said it’s really hard to make a Sweet 16 even when you are awesome.”
With the Tar Heels failing to score in the last two minutes after hanging around long enough to look poised to pull off an upset of the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, there was a sense of extreme pride when it was finished.
“I asked these [players] to give me both their head and their heart all year long, and that’s what they did,” Banghart said.
North Carolina (25-7) suffered a defeat to a team outside of the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time this season.
“They never gave up no matter how big or small the lead was,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They deserved to be here, and they pushed us to the limit.”
Deja Kelly had 12 of her 23 points in the first half and Alexandra Zelaya finished with 10 points.
Ultimately, South Carolina did too much damage on the offensive boards. The Gamecocks picked off 24 rebounds at the offensive end, contributing to a 27-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Post player Aliyah Boston was the biggest culprit, scoring 28 points and grabbing 22 rebounds. She shot 12-for-13 at the free-throw line, often getting there after snatching a rebound.
Despite what seemed like an uphill battle at times, the Tar Heels were right there down the stretch. Trailing 65-61, Littlefield missed a pair of attempted free throws with 1:22 to play.
Then Boston scored in the lane before a North Carolina turnover.
“Of course, we don’t want it that close,” Staley said. “But if it got that close, find a way to dig deep and get a win.”
By the end, the Gamecocks held a 47-33 rebounding edge.
Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson both made three 3-point shots for South Carolina. North Carolina was 3-for-11 on 3s.
South Carolina connected on six first-half 3-point shots. That kind of put the Tar Heels out of kilter, particularly based on their intended strategy.
“Our initial game plan in the beginning was to really crowd the paint, really limit the bigs’ touches,” Kelly said. “And then the guards kind of started going on their own little run. They were hitting outside shots, jumpers, which is something we were going to make them do, and they did.”
This was the Tar Heels’ first spot in the Sweet 16 since losing in this round to South Carolina in the same building in 2015.
South Carolina plays the winner of the nightcap between Creighton and Iowa State on Sunday night with a spot in the Final Four at stake.
No. 1 S.C. 69, No. 17 UNC 61
|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. 21 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 17 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 25 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 (7–1, 7–1 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. 17 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 5 Louisville|
|20||64–49 win, 21–5, 11–5||Road||Florida State|
|24||68–57 win, 22–5, 12–5||Road||Virginia|
|27||74–46 win, 23–5, 14–5||Home||Duke|
|—— ACC Tournament ——|
|4||87–80 OT loss, 23–6||Greensboro||No. 17 Virginia Tech|
|—— NCAA Tournament ——|
|19||79–66 win, 24–6||Tucson, Ariz.||Stephen F. Austin|
|21||63–45 win, 25–6||Road||No. 19 Arizona|
|25||69–61 loss, 25–7||Greensboro||No. 1 South Carolina|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications