Tar Heels fall short but give taller, No. 1 Gamecocks challenge

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.

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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

DateScore, recordLocationOpponent
(current rank)
November (6–0)
992–47 win, 1–0HomeN.C. A&T
1489–33 win, 2–0RoadCharlotte
1789–44 win, 3–0HomeAppalachian State
2179–46 win, 4–0RoadTCU
2672–59 win, 5–0Bimini, BahamasX — VCU
2758–37 win, 6–0Bimini, BahamasX — Washington
December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)
182–76 win, 7–0RoadY — Minnesota
593–47 win, 8–0HomeJames Madison
12107–46 win, 9–0HomeUNC Asheville
15Game canceledHomeJacksonville
1976–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACCRoadBoston College
2183–47 win, 11–0HomeAlabama State
3079–43 win, 12–0, 2–0HomeSyracuse
January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)
281–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACCHomeClemson
672–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1RoadNo. 3 N.C. State
971–46 win, 14–1, 4–1HomeNo. 21 Virginia Tech
1670–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2RoadNo. 17 Notre Dame
2061–52 win, 15–2, 5–2HomeVirginia
2355–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3RoadNo. 25 Georgia Tech
2778–62 win, 16–3, 6–3RoadDuke
3066–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4HomeNo. 3 N.C. State
February (7–1, 7–1 ACC)
378–59 win, 17–4, 7–4RoadWake Forest
685–38 win, 18–4, 8–4HomeMiami
1064–54 win, 19–4, 9–4HomePittsburgh
1366–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5RoadNo. 17 Virginia Tech
1766–65 win, 20–5, 10–5HomeNo. 5 Louisville
2064–49 win, 21–5, 11–5RoadFlorida State
2468–57 win, 22–5, 12–5RoadVirginia
2774–46 win, 23–5, 14–5HomeDuke
March (2–2)
—— ACC Tournament ——
487–80 OT loss, 23–6GreensboroNo. 17 Virginia Tech
—— NCAA Tournament ——
1979–66 win, 24–6Tucson, Ariz.Stephen F. Austin
2163–45 win, 25–6RoadNo. 19 Arizona
2569–61 loss, 25–7GreensboroNo. 1 South Carolina

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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