By Bob Sutton
The easy explanation for how North Carolina’s women’s basketball team extended its season Saturday:
Deja Kelly drove down the left side of the lane and banked in a shot with 2.3 seconds left as Mimi Reid of St. John’s fouled her to break a tie. She finished the three-point play.
“I love those moments,” Kelly said. “I’m a competitor, so I’m just going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Yet it was much more complex than that.
The result is what mattered to the Tar Heels, a 61–59 escape because of late-game execution and some good fortune.
“They call it survive and advance for a reason,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said.
This first-round NCAA tournament game came with offensive struggles and then a mind-boggling array of twists and turns in Columbus, Ohio.
The No. 6-seed Tar Heels (22–10) will tangle with host Ohio State (26–7) at 6 p.m. (ESPN), the No. 3-seed team and an 80–56 winner against James Madison in Saturday’s first game, on Monday.
North Carolina wiped out a five-point hole with less than four minutes to play.
The winning possession went just as designed for the Tar Heels.
“We would have really loved for them to foul us, and they did, so that was even better,” Banghart said.
Kelly finished with 18 points. The last three were a bit of an adventure.
“I knew I wanted to go left, and I was really just thinking get to the rim,” Kelly said. “I knew if they gave me the pull-up, I would have taken it. But that wasn’t falling for me the second half. So I knew in my head I was like, get to the rim, take what they give you.
“When it went in — at first I thought they called a charge and I was going to be really upset — but it went in and we got the foul and I made the free throw, so there was a lot of emotions in that one play,” she said.
After what became Kelly’s winning basket, there was lots left to digest.
No. 11-seed St. John’s (23–9) advanced the ball to the frontcourt by calling a timeout. The Tar Heels had a foul to give, and Kelly wrapped up Danielle Patterson around the waist. Officials ruled that Patterson was in a shooting motion to attempt a 3-pointer.
So ,with 1.5 seconds, the St. John’s senior forward had a chance to tie the game. Instead, she missed her first two free-throw attempts and made the third. North Carolina got the ball inbounds and finished the ordeal.
“It’s the second year in a row that we’ve felt under-seeded, but at the same time we have to prove ourselves each game,” Kelly said. “We definitely had to do it [Saturday] with how down-to-the-wire that game went.”
The final few minutes were intriguing, if not perplexing, not to mention several adjustments to the game clock.
The Tar Heels led 46–41 through three quarters. It was tied at 46 with 8:42 left. Patterson’s second 3 of the fourth quarter put the Red Storm up 49–48.
North Carolina trailed 54–49 with less than four minutes to play. Paulina Paris converted a three-point play on a fastbreak to tie it at 54 at the 1:59 mark.
The Tar Heels had the lead on Kennedy Todd-Williams’ putback with 29.5 seconds left. Reid countered with a scoop shot with 6.5 seconds to go to set up the eventful conclusion.
“We had a shot at the end, that’s all you can ask for,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t make the last play that we needed to and they did.”
At least the Tar Heels have been involved in such tussles. This one was complicated down the stretch by playing without Alyssa Ustby, who fouled out after scoring 13 points.
Until St. John’s found second-half openings, everything was so difficult for the Red Storm. Even Kadaja Bailey’s three-point play in the third quarter resulted more from an unorthodox launch than any fluid offensive motion permitted by the Tar Heels.
While the Tar Heels were bottled up offensively in many possessions, they used crisp ball movement with a series of passes to set up Eva Hodgson’s 3-pointer for a 44–36 lead late in the third quarter.
Three of North Carolina’s seven field goals in the third quarter came from 3-point range, the first from Hodgson, pushing the margin to 32–20. However, such opportunities soon seemed to go away.
The Tar Heels appeared capable of avoiding drama because of a strong start. North Carolina scored the first eight points. Kelly had 10 points by halftime, with the Tar Heels holding a 29–20 lead.
North Carolina held the Red Storm to 24.1% shooting in the first half. St. John’s made one field goal in the second quarter.
Bob Sutton is a veteran ACC sports writer who was the sports editor of the Burlington Times-News for 25 years.
UNC 61, St. John’s 59
At the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio
Thursday’s play-in result
St. John’s 66, Purdue 64
Saturday’s first-round results
No. 3-seed Ohio State 80, No. 14 James Madison 66
No. 6 North Carolina 61, No. 11 St. John’s 59
Monday’s second round
Ohio State 71, North Carolina 69
|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