Down three points to No. 15 Duke with four seconds left in regulation, North Carolina women’s basketball head coach Sylvia Hatchell drew up a play. Who did Hatchell trust to shoot with the game on the line?
It wasn’t Paris Kea, a preseason All-ACC Team pick who finished the game with 36 points and five made threes. It wasn’t Jamie Cherry, the senior leader known for her clutch late-game shooting.
It was Leah Church, a first-year averaging 3.1 points a game.
“We were trying to do a flare-type screen and a cross-court pass for Leah to shoot it,” Hatchell said. “But it wasn’t there.”
Since Church was so closely guarded, Taylor Koenen instead threw the ball into Kea, who drained the triple with one second left on the clock to send the game to overtime.
Though the play didn’t pan out as designed, the fact that Hatchell picked Church, who had never scored more than eight points in one game, speaks volumes about the confidence the head coach has in her.
Perhaps that confidence comes from Church’s 48-percent shooting from three on the season. Or, perhaps it comes from something else.
“Look up on your phone, put her name in: Leah Church. YouTube it, and it’ll come up,” Hatchell commanded. “She makes 33 threes in one minute.”
Hatchell was off by one, but the feat is no less impressive. Inside the Wilkes Family YMCA in the fall of 2016, Church set a world record by hitting 32 threes in one minute. She broke the previous record of 27, and, as the video's description notes, ending up making 55 before missing.
So despite limited in-game experience — Church came in averaging less than nine minutes a game — she was not afraid to let it fly. The Purlear, N.C., native had a career-high 19 points and shot 5-11 from 3-point range.
“I believe in my shot because I’ve put in the time and put up the shots,” Church said. “I’m confident and I’ve just got to give credit to Jamie and Paris because they have confidence in me ... and that means a lot, especially as a freshman for them to trust me.”
According to Kea, however, Church's value goes beyond her shooting prowess.
“She brings a lot of passion to the game,” Kea said. “You can see it all over her face. She just brings so much energy ... she gets us started.”
Her energy was on full display when she jumpstarted a listless North Carolina offense in the second quarter. In a nearly five-minute stretch that started in the first quarter, UNC did not score. Church broke that drought.
The 5-foot-8 guard was fearless in her drives to the basket. After being blocked on a drive the previous possession, she took it right back to the hoop and drew a foul.
Later in the second quarter, when UNC was down 19, she went on a personal 5-2 run. She drained a deep two-pointer from the right baseline, then followed it up on the next possession with a swish from three.
Immediately after, Church, whose play is consistent with the basketball maxim “Shoot to get hot; shoot to stay hot,” pulled up for a heat-check three that airballed. But despite that miss, her seven second-quarter points sparked North Carolina’s comeback.
Church continued to energize the Tar Heel offense. In the third quarter, she hit a clutch three from the corner to bring the Tar Heels within one. Then, in overtime, she connected on two threes that helped seal the 92-86 victory for the Tar Heels.
Even after the best game of her career, Church remained humble.
“First off I’ve got thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ because to be in this position, it’s a dream come true for me to have the opportunity,” she said. “My teammates, they found me and they looked for me, and thankfully some of them went in today.”
All His Glory! I broke down crying in the parking lot after this game. It hit me...all the hrs of work, the sacrifices, the doubters, the tears, the times I wanted to quit... Yet, a dream I held onto of being in the spot I was today. I was overwhelmed. God is good, y'all. pic.twitter.com/TBY0tI1Hcq