ALBUQUERQUE, NM — In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the North Carolina women’s basketball team found its rhythm.
The Tar Heels not only discovered a fluid domination of tempo in an 86-74 victory against Kentucky, but the Tar Heels finally unearthed the game UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell has been waiting for all season.
And that’s exactly what North Carolina is looking for now, as UNC faces a trip to the Sweet Sixteen to face No. 1 Stanford on Saturday in Spokane, Wash.
“We worked so hard, and we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Hatchell said. “We got it going in the ACC Tournament, and they’ve all stepped it up, doing whatever they can to help out … It’s a lot of fun to see them play like this and of course to be doing all of this at the right time.”
After a back-and-forth battle with Kentucky, the Tar Heels (28-8) found immediate success with transition scoring in The Pit — and ran with it.
Using long and accurate outlet passes as ammo, the Tar Heels pulled ahead of Kentucky (25-9) with two consecutive backdoor layups from Krista Gross and a fastbreak layup from Italee Lucas.
“We were getting rebounds and instead of holding onto it and handing it off to the guard, we were turning and we were throwing the ball 30 feet or more out,” Hatchell said. “It’s a gamble at times, but it worked for us.”
As successful outlets built confidence, the Tar Heels posted a 14-2 run featuring back-to-back 3-pointers from Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid on the way to a 10-point UNC lead at the half.
But SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap caught on to the Tar Heels’ aggression in the paint and found her own success late in the second half to help close the gap to just two points.
Two Kentucky 3-pointers took advantage of North Carolina’s cooling offense at the right time, but North Carolina’s defense was able to quiet the comeback and hold the lead.
Dunlap’s game caught fire in the final minutes of play and propelled her to a game-high 23 points alongside three steals and two blocks.
The Tar Heels turned to sophomore Tierra Ruffin-Pratt off the bench to shut Dunlap down by boxing out. By denying the forward a chance to give UK a lead, Ruffin-Pratt excelled at physical pressure on her way to seven points and 10 rebounds.
Although Kentucky put immediate pressure on UNC with an aggressive full-court press, the Wildcats struggled with converting opportunities — especially from beyond-the-arc. UK’s 5-for-23 shooting from the 3-point range further flustered a team struggling to keep up with UNC’s pace.
“We just kept telling each other, ‘Keep running, keep running — even if we don’t get the ball, keep running, because the other team is wearing down just trying to sprint back to do us up,’” Lucas said. “That really turned out and worked for the best. They got tired in the end, and we just kept winning.”
And while Ruffin-Pratt and the bench did play a pivotal role in adding to North Carolina’s success, the night’s key performances belonged to its senior leaders.
Jessica Breland once again suffered from altitude and allergy problems, but the forward powered through her health issues to score 18 points and grab 10 boards in a double-double performance.
“I feel like crap, but I pushed through it,” Breland said. “My teammates need me, and I just wanted to win this game. I didn’t want my season to be over with.”
Lucas posted a team-high 22 points on the night, along with seven rebounds and five assists — most of which ended in the hands of Krista Gross, who also put up a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“We were running some plays for Jessica, to get the ball to her, and we were also having post players come high and clear out the baseline so Italee could drive,” Hatchell said. “Get to tournament time, you go with your seniors — they’re the ones who got you there.”
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