For a moment on Thursday afternoon, the North Carolina women’s basketball team finally put everything together against N.C. State.
But with a four-point lead and three minutes left in the third, the Tar Heels (13-6, 3-3 ACC) imploded, allowing the Wolfpack (15-5, 4-3 ACC) to close the period on a 14-2 run and seize a 52-44 lead en route to their 66-53 victory.
North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell opted not to settle her team down with a timeout, and she admitted that may have been a mistake.
“I probably should have called a couple of more timeouts,” she said, “but I felt like, ‘OK, we’re going to come down, and we’ll score and get the ball inside.’”
The Tar Heels were unable to get the ball inside largely because of Janelle Bailey’s absence. Bailey, a five-time ACC Rookie of the Week, picked up her third foul with six minutes left in the third and sat out the rest of the third quarter. Losing their top rebounder and third-leading scorer left the Tar Heels’ rotation with a hole that was tough to fill.
“When I go out of the game, it takes something out of our team," Bailey said, "and I think that makes the other team go into attack mode.”
Hatchell also blamed her team’s inexperience both for its costly shot selection and poor defense during the disastrous run.
“We took some shots that were costly and we just had a bad time there,” she said. “That’s when we need to get the ball in the right people’s hands and we gotta have people step up — our leadership — on both ends of the floor.”
The Tar Heels’ 53 points set a new season low. Hatchell gave credit to N.C. State’s tenacious defense, likening it to the "pack line" defense that Tony Bennett runs with the No. 2 Virginia men's basketball team.
Guard Jamie Cherry was less gracious and pointed to poor ball movement against N.C. State’s tight one-on-one defense.
“At times our offense got very stagnant and we weren’t moving the ball well enough,” she said. “I thought that was a part of it along with us just not making shots.”
But Cherry, UNC’s sole senior, was also inconsistent defensively. With the shot clock off and N.C. State holding for the last shot of the third quarter, Cherry sagged off of her assignment and allowed Kaila Ealey to drain a three as the quarter ended.
The shot gave the Wolfpack an eight-point lead and brought an irate Hatchell all the way out to midcourt after the buzzer to yell at her team.
This miscue from a seasoned veteran was particularly galling to Hatchell, considering the Tar Heels’ youth. UNC often plays two or three first-years at a time, leaving Hatchell’s squad susceptible to rookie mistakes.
“We’re still pretty young,” Hatchell said, “and we make mistakes sometimes where I’ve gotta bite my tongue and shake my head and just tell the coaches to put that on the film for tomorrow."
Perhaps the Tar Heels’ inexperience only flared up for a few minutes on Thursday night. But in a tight rivalry game, those simple momentary lapses added up and a bad three minutes proved insurmountable.