RALEIGH — North Carolina entered Reynolds Coliseum on its most successful stretch ever against N.C. State.
A staggering 17 of the past 19 contests had gone in the Tar Heels’ favor, yet with 12 minutes remaining in the second half, none of that seemed to matter.
The Wolfpack were in the midst of extending their largest lead of the game to nine. And just moments before, NCSU’s Emili Tasler swished home another three-pointer. The crowd was in a frenzy as no one on UNC seemed willing to take any sort of cold-blooded shot.
Well, not quite.
Moments later, junior Italee Lucas grabbed the ball at the top of the key and immediately netted a three-point attempt to begin a UNC rally that would give it an 81-69 win.
“She made some tough shots, first of all,” N.C. State coach Kellie Harper said of Lucas. “We defended her well, and she was still able to score. We wanted to keep the ball out of her hands but were unable to do that.”
From there, it was all Lucas — who scored 28 points in the second half — and all UNC.
The first half was anything but peachy. UNC (16-3, 4-1 ACC) started off the game in miserable fashion, making just 31.4 percent of its attempts and managing to miss all seven shots from long range.
But at halftime, something changed.
“At halftime, I called the stats out,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “They were not good. For Cetera (DeGraffenreid), for Italee or She’la (White). I called them all out. I told them, ‘You gotta lead this team. You gotta pick up the tempo there.’ That made a big difference.”
It certainly did. Especially with Lucas, who had missed all five of her shots in the first half.
But after the Wolfpack (12-8, 2-3) started the second stanza with four straight points, Lucas responded with a jumper of her own and then some, to put it lightly.
“The plays that we run get me the open look,” Lucas said. “Cetera being able to penetrate and kick. It’s the plays.”
That may be, but by the 12:38 mark, Lucas had 15 points. Even then, it didn’t seem like she was truly feeling her stroke. With just under 11 minutes remaining, though, Lucas started sizzling.
She cut into the lane for an off-balance, scoop layup. On the next Tar Heel possession, she hit a fading jumper while going back into the UNC bench, closing North Carolina to within two, 54-52.
Noticeable groans echoed throughout Reynolds. Harper bit her lip. The North Carolina bench whooped and hollered.
A minute later, DeGraffenreid simply handed the ball to Lucas and jetted out of the way as another long jumper netted in. By game’s end, she had scored a career-high 33 points.
The rest of the Tar Heels seemed to feed off Lucas’ performance, as DeGraffenreid scored 16 and freshman Waltiea Rolle chipped in 12 points. N.C. State crumbled late, and Harper suggested her team was forcing shots to keep pace with Lucas.
“Italee got going, which made the difference,” Hatchell said.
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