In the span of five days, the North Carolina women’s basketball team beat the nation’s No. 15 team by three and lost to the No. 16 team by 45.
UNC scored 57 points in both games. The difference on Sunday against Tennessee in Knoxville was that it gave up 102.
Coach Sylvia Hatchell’s explanation for the meltdown pointed toward the absence of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a speedy senior guard.
Ruffin-Pratt, UNC’s top transition defender, hit her head late in the first half and was unable to return to the floor. Hatchell said in a press conference after the game that the Volunteers, who play an up-tempo style similar to the Tar Heels’, were able to take advantage of the fast break.
“When Tierra’s out there, we call her the secretary of defense because she’s a great transition defensive player,” Hatchell said.
“They don’t get a lot of layups off of Tierra. And of course, she wasn’t out there in the second half, so it was layup city for a while. They were getting layups every time down the floor.”
Tennessee scored 36 points off the Tar Heels’ 30 turnovers.
But freshman forward Xylina McDaniel said UNC’s struggles stemmed from being presented for the first time this season with a sharper-shooting, more composed version of itself.
“So far this season, we hadn’t played a team that likes to play like us, that likes to play fast,” said McDaniel, who led UNC with 19 points and 13 rebounds. “It’s just opened our eyes.”
In the first half, Tennessee took a 22-9 lead and closed out the half with a 21-point lead at 49-28. Meighan Simmons scored 22 of her career-high 33 points for the Volunteers before halftime.
UNC shot 39 percent from the field and attempted just one 3-point shot, which it missed.
The Volunteers out-rebounded UNC by 14 through the course of the game and allowed the Tar Heels no second-chance points in the first half.
“They were just crashing the boards,” McDaniel said. “They sent four in to rebound and one back. We’re not really used to teams doing that. That’s no excuse, though.”
On the scoreboard, the second half was no better. North Carolina’s free-throw percentage bottomed out at 40 percent, and the team shot went just 10-for-33 from the field.
Tennessee’s lead grew consistently throughout the final 20 minutes. The final 45-point margin was just one point removed from the Volunteers’ largest lead of 46.
But despite shooting poorly and being without its top defender, Hatchell said she thought her team’s play improved in the second half.
“Believe it or not, even with the score, there were some good things that happened out there for us, and we’ll make a lot of adjustments,” she said. “We’re not going to slow down. We’re going to fly up and down the court. If we’d just scored more baskets, it really would have been a fun game to watch.”
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