North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said at the beginning of the season that her team was going to surprise some people — that the Tar Heels were underrated.
No. 22 UNC, which began the season unranked, got a chance to prove Hatchell’s point Wednesday night against No. 15 Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. The Tar Heels defeated the Buckeyes 57-54, leading most of the way.
Forward Xylina McDaniel, guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and center Waltiea Rolle all finished with 11 points.
In a game in which both teams traded runs — a 15-0 streak by Ohio State in the second half being the largest — UNC showed not only that it could be a very good basketball team, but also how badly it wanted to be one.
“So much of it is mental,” Hatchell said. “We consider ourselves a blue-collar team. We’re going to play hard and physical, and that’s the mentality that they’ve taken. They enjoy it.”
In the first half, Rolle played perhaps her best basketball all season, scoring 10 points, blocking three shots and generally dominating the interior. UNC’s other players were smaller than Ohio State’s, but they were able to run the floor and stay in front of shooters.
After closing the first half on a 7-0 run and taking a 29-25 lead into the locker room, UNC opened the second half on an eight-point tear.
But though the Tar Heels were able to control much of the game with their up-tempo, high-pressure style of play, it was the way in which they responded in the game’s final moments to OSU’s late run that showed how difficult they would be to beat.
After trailing 46-30 with 10 minutes left to play, the Buckeyes stormed back to take a 48-47 lead, thanks in part to big 3-pointers from senior standout Tayler Hill. Throughout, UNC was forced to play OSU’s slower, half-court game.
With 1:26 to play, Ohio State led 54-51.
“Basketball is a game of runs. They went on their run, and we had to come back and go on ours,” senior Ruffin-Pratt said. “They slowed the game down, but we’re not really a slow-paced team, so we had to pick the tempo back up.”
McDaniel did just that as she drove to the basket and closed the gap to one with 1:14 remaining.
“It was just me playing ball,” she said. “I’m real comfortable with my team, and they just made me feel like I was playing my game.”
Then Ruffin-Pratt made two critical steals. The first, a pickpocket of center Darryce Moore, resulted in a fast-break layup and gave UNC a one-point lead with 41 seconds to play.
Ohio State called a timeout to plan a final play. But Ruffin-Pratt tipped the inbound pass, brought the ball down, and finished another contested layup to push the lead to three.
Hill, who scored a game-high 24 points, heaved an off-balance 3-pointer that clanked off the rim as time expired.
“We were throwing a lot of different things out there, and I think that kept them a little bit off-balance,” Hatchell said. “But they’re not going to lay down and die. This was a big win for us in the end.”
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