Paris Kea couldn’t miss, and the North Carolina women’s basketball team wouldn’t be denied a season-defining win that seemed as improbable as it is now significant.
On a day where head coach Sylvia Hatchell was honored before the game for reaching the 1,000-win milestone last month, Kea, with help from her teammates, pulled off a come-from-behind 92-86 overtime victory against No. 15 Duke. The win, which was No. 1,004 in Hatchell’s career, may be one of her most memorable.
Down by 19 late in the first half — and eight with 1:26 remaining in the fourth quarter — UNC (14-6, 4-3 ACC) rallied time after time. It was Kea who personified UNC’s collective relentlessness, as she set a career high with 36 points, the three biggest of which came on a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation.
“My past two games, my shot wasn’t the best," Kea said. "I know I was like 1-7 from three (against N.C. State), so I was in the gym shooting. I got my energy back, my strength back, my confidence back, and I knew this game I had to help my teammates out a little more. And thank God it went in.”
Hatchell described Kea’s heroics by saying, “Paris, you know, started to do the Paris thing.” On Sunday, ‘the Paris thing’ was defined as shooting 15 of 23 from the field – she made her final five shots of the game – and being a nuisance defensively, evidenced by her team-high six steals.
Thanks to Kea and strong efforts from first-year Leah Church (19 points, five 3-pointers) and veteran Jamie Cherry (22 points, 13 assists, four steals), the Tar Heels earned a win they desperately needed as a program.
Church’s performance shattered her previous career-high of eight points, and her role was important to the Tar Heels, who needed somebody else to help Kea out on a day where first-year center Janelle Bailey was contained for the most part. Church knew she had a showing like that in her.
“I believe in my shot because I’ve put in the time, and I’ve put up the shots," the guard said. "So, I’m confident."
For Hatchell, the win is one she will cherish for several reasons. For starters, it was UNC’s first win against Duke (15-5, 4-3 ACC) since March of 2014. But the way it was earned also left an impression on the coach, who was impressed with her team’s camaraderie and chemistry. Hatchell even drew a comparison between the victory and the overall difficulties her program has faced in recent years related to the NCAA’s investigation.
“Our program, we’ve been through a lot the past three years, you know?” Hatchell lamented. “I say a lot of times, ‘We didn’t create the mess, the mess created us.’ And I had to deal with it. But we persevered, we’re on the other side, we got greatness in front of us just like today. Today was greatness.”
Such a positive postgame reflection on Hatchell’s part did not seem possible late in the fourth quarter. But with Duke ahead by eight with just under a minute and a half remaining, UNC began to rally. An old-fashioned three-point play by Kea trimmed the deficit to five. A missed Duke free throw and a pair of makes at the free throw line by Cherry made it a four-point contest.
Kea then stole the ball and scored on a mid-range jumper to make it a two-point game. After Duke once again faltered at the charity stripe, making one of two, Kea delivered in the clutch with her overtime-forcing 3-pointer, on a play originally drawn up for Church.
By that point, UNC believed in itself, and its dominance in the overtime period was proof of that.
“I kept telling them, ‘We’re good, here’s what we’re doing,'" Hatchell said. "'Y’all having fun? We’re going to win this.' They were really good. The huddle was really, really good over there — a lot of positive energy. I think all along, they had a lot of confidence.”
After the game, Kea made sure to share a long, meaningful embrace with Cherry, UNC’s lone senior.
“It got a little emotional,” the redshirt junior admitted. “Who doesn’t love beating Duke?”