“The difference in the game was Jamie Cherry,” Pittsburgh head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said. “She took over the game.”
After UNC jumped out to a 9-3 lead to open the contest, the 11th-seeded Panthers (13-17, 4-12 ACC) seized control with a 13-0 run between the first and second quarters and held a seven-point lead. It looked like another second-quarter collapse could doom a North Carolina team that had just one win in the past month — which came on a Cherry buzzer beater, no less.
But the veteran’s 16 points buoyed the 14th-seeded Tar Heels (15-15, 3-13 ACC), who trailed by just four points at the half.
“I told them at halftime, ‘We’ve just gotta come out hard and push the third quarter,’” Cherry said. “‘And if we get the third quarter done, we’re gonna win the game.’”
Cherry came out of the break on fire, scoring 11 points in the third quarter to give her 27 points.
“She can do it all: drive pass, finish with contact, hit the three,” said first-year Taylor Koenen, who recorded her first career double-double.
After the Panthers exploited the paint early in the game, North Carolina threw unique defensive looks to stifle their inside attack. Offensively, Cherry circled through the Pittsburgh defense and weaved through on-ball screens to find open looks.
No matter what, the Panthers couldn’t contain her.
“She just found a way to pick us apart,” McConnell-Serio said. “She was a player on a mission today.”
Last season, a heroic effort from Cherry wasn’t enough. Guiding a hobbled lineup against a heavily favored Pittsburgh squad, she hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in regulation to tie the game. But the Panthers bullied North Carolina in overtime for a 10-point win.
The Tar Heels entered Wednesday missing three preseason starters and relying on three first-years in the lineup.
But she knew it’d be different.
“It was definitely a hit in the mouth last year ...” she said. “So when we heard that we got matched up with Pitt, we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we have to beat them.’”
Cherry had yet to beat Pittsburgh in her three-year career. But a career effort in Conway, S.C., led her team to its first postseason win since 2015 — when a Cherry buzzer beater sunk Ohio State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight at 8 p.m., UNC faces a tougher test: No. 6 Syracuse and ACC Player of the Year Alexis Peterson.
“I can guarantee you, we’re gonna be praying a lot,” head coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
But with another performance like Wednesday’s, Cherry could be the answer to her prayers.