By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — No. 11 North Carolina can’t keep all of its guards healthy, but whoever the Tar Heels roll out there, they just keep rolling.
A game after redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson made her long-awaited college debut came news that fifth-year player Eva Hodgson will miss three to four weeks with an upper-body injury. She joins reserve guard Ariel Young (knee injury) on the sidelines.
After a skittish offensive start, the Tar Heels steamrolled Virginia with a 20–5 second-quarter run and coasted to their eighth consecutive victory, 73–62, Thursday at Carmichael Arena.
“This team is hard to guard when we’ve got all of our pieces getting better and better and better,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart, 7–0 against Virginia, after her team shot 53.1%, its best against an ACC team this season.
Banghart said she’s seen a lot of maturation from her team since it lost the first three conference games. That’s led to the Tar Heels (18–5, 8–3 ACC) playing better defensively and improving game-by-game on the offensive end.
“The ball is moving better,” said Banghart, whose team is a game out of first place. “They have a better understanding of how each other can be helpful in it; our movement’s better. I figured them out better. It took me a little bit of time to figure them out. And then, defensively, we’re way better — more engaged, way more active.”
Carolina will miss Hodgson’s leadership, spunky play and perimeter shooting, but Paulina Paris has slipped into her starting role nicely. McPherson demonstrated the depth of talent by becoming the seventh Tar Heel to lead the team in scoring, collecting 14 points and two 3-pointers and eliciting a few head-turns from home fans seeing her play in person for the first time.
“There’s a lot of talent on this team and that gives us a lot of depth that helps us,” Banghart said.
Four other Tar Heels scored in double figure — Deja Kelly (13 points, five rebounds and two assists), Alyssa Ustby (12 points, three steals), Kennedy Todd-Williams (11 points, three assists, one steal) and Anya Poole (11 points, tying a season-high, eight rebounds and two steals)
McPherson admitted to not being entirely in rhythm in her debut against Clemson, but there were no such issues against the Cavaliers (14–9, 3–9).
“I just needed one to get under my belt,” said McPherson, who was a game-high +18 in 18½ minutes. “Coach trusts me to do what I do, so I just go out there and do it.”
After driving past two defenders in transition and making a nice bounce pass to Ally Zelaya for a layup for her game-high fourth assist, McPherson had a huge smile at midcourt as she celebrated heading into a time out.
“I just love playing with these people, with these kids,” McPherson said. “They’re so fun to be on the court with, so any time I can get them a good shot, I’m just excited for them.”
The emotions of the last two games were obvious after she missed all of last season recovering from a right knee injury, then the first 21 games of this season with a left knee injury.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” McPherson said. “I mean, I’ve been waiting on this for a long time. So to finally be out here playing with them, it’s just excitement.”
Hodgson was upbeat and active before and during the game encouraging her teammates.
“Luckily, it’s not super-serious,” Banghart said. “So, Eva will be back before the very end of the season. She’ll be back, so it’s not like Kayla, where we had to lose her for a long period of time.”
Poole has been a steady force inside fighting for rebounds and battling some of the biggest centers in the ACC but she also showed off a couple of nice jumpers Thursday.
“Today, I was like, if y’all aren’t gonna guard me, I’m just gonna shoot it. If it goes in, it goes in,” Poole said.
Banghart praised Poole’s play during the long win streak.
“The last month, she’s really playing well, which is why we’re playing so much better,” Banghart said.
Poole says she’ll do whatever her team needs most, whether it’s rebounding, scoring or cheering.
“I think my teammates are trusting in me to take the shots that I need to take,” Poole said. “And if I don’t have it, to kick it out to them and keep posting. We get hammered [into us] every day to post up. If you’re not doing anything, your man is defending the ball. So, I’ve got it in my head to engage my defender, and my teammates got it to me, so I scored.”
Carolina went the first 6:43 without a field goal before Poole’s first jumper. But the Heels only trailed 6–5 because Virginia also got off to a slow offensive start.
McPherson gave UNC a 9–8 lead after one quarter on a driving layup and 3-pointer. It was Carolina’s second consecutive game with single digits in a quarter after scoring only seven in the third period at Clemson on Sunday.
The Tar Heels took control by making nine of their first 10 shots in a 20–5 run to start the second quarter, capped by consecutive layups by Poole, Ustby, McPherson and Kelly to lead by 16. The lead hit 17 before UNC took a 33–21 halftime advantage.
Virginia pulled within eight on a McKenna Dale 3-pointer midway through the third quarter. But McPherson capped a 10–2 Carolina run with a layup to shove the lead to 16 and the Heels took a 53–40 advantage into the final quarter.
Forward London Clarkson came off the bench to lead Virginia with 23 points, with guard Dale adding 15 points and three 3-pointers.
NOTES — The crowd for Carolina’s noon game Sunday at Louisville (16–8, 7–4) will likely be the largest of the season. For home games, the Cardinals’ smallest crowd has been 7,311, and they drew 11,175 for the N.C. State game. Louisville ended a two-game losing streak with a 79–67 win Sunday at Syracuse and had Thursday off. … Ustby is among the top 10 candidates for the Cheryl Miller Award, which goes to the nation’s top small forward. … The Tar Heels finished off a season sweep of Virginia after beating the Cavaliers 70–59 on Jan. 12 to extend their lead in the series to 58–35 with wins in 27 of the last 30 meetings.
No. 11 UNC 73, Virginia 62
UNC lineup combinations
|No. 10 Notre Dame||15–3||24–4|
|No. 11 Duke||14–4||24–5|
|No. 9 Virginia Tech||14–4||24–4|
|No. 23 Florida State||12–6||23–8|
|No. 22 North Carolina||11–7||20–9|
No. 9 Virginia Tech 61, No. 22 North Carolina 59
No. 10 Notre Dame 76, Georgia Tech 53
No. 23 Florida State 61, Wake Forest 60
Syracuse 85, Pittsburgh 55
Louisville 71, Miami 50
Clemson 79, Virginia 69
No. 11 Duke 77, N.C. State 62
No. 22 North Carolina 45, No. 11 Duke 41
No. 10 Notre Dame 68, Louisville, noon, ESPN3
Miami 84, Virginia 75
Boston College 73, Wake Forest 63
Clemson 74, No. 23 Florida State 61
N.C. State 68, Pittsburgh at 63
No. 9 Virginia Tech 65, Georgia Tech 52
End of regular season
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications