Down just two at halftime, the Tar Heels (12-9, 3-4 ACC) outscored the Fighting Irish 28-17 in the third quarter on the strength of a hot stretch from redshirt senior guard Paris Kea. Early in the fourth quarter, UNC’s lead ballooned to 10 points but a scoreless stretch that spanned 5:04 allowed Notre Dame (19-2, 6-1 ACC) to regain the lead. With the program’s biggest win on the line, UNC closed out the game with a 15-8 run.
“I’m just really happy for these guys because they without a doubt had a ‘wow moment’ today,” Hatchell said.
It was an accomplishment made possible by contributions from everyone who saw the court for the Tar Heels, but it’s impossible to start anywhere other than the play of Kea, whose creativity and willingness to put the game on her shoulders highlighted the Tar Heels’ best performance in recent years.
Thirty points, 10 assists and three steals later, Kea contemplated in a postgame news conference why she’s always at her best against the best. Just over a year ago, she dropped 36 points in an unlikely come-from-behind victory against Duke, a performance previously unrivaled as her personal best. Her showing against Notre Dame now provides some competition.
“I love a challenge,” said Kea, a Greensboro native. “That’s all I can say about it.”
In December, a frustrating foot injury kept Kea out for three games. She’s been steadily recovering but against Notre Dame, she said she felt she was “getting back to the old Paris.”
Examples of the "old Paris" on display against Notre Dame: a four-point play that came from one of five threes she made; a 54-second sequence in which she scored eight points; her scoring UNC's final four points to secure the win.
And yet, Hatchell was proud of “how the whole team played.” There was sophomore center Janelle Bailey, who remained focused after her first few shots of the day rimmed out and managed to play smart basketball with four fouls during the home stretch of a 16-point, eight-rebound performance. There was junior guard Taylor Koenen, who scored just four points but made her impact on defense, recording three steals and slowing down Notre Dame’s 6-foot-3 Brianna Turner.
And there was also sophomore guard Leah Church, a known threat from the 3-point line. With 1:25 remaining, Church, who had taken only one shot (a miss) all afternoon, drilled a 3-pointer to put UNC ahead, 74-71, a lead the Tar Heels didn’t relinquish.
“If she’s open and she misses a shot, that’s rare,” Hatchell said.
Immediately following Church’s make, Notre Dame committed one of its 20 turnovers on the day, a moment that encapsulated its struggles against UNC’s defense. From there, North Carolina saw out the result, one that raised eyebrows across the sport, even if the players making it happen weren’t as shocked.
“One thing I want to say is that we are a better team than our record shows,” said UNC redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts, who scored 19 points. “We didn’t come into this game scared, and we didn’t come into this game nervous.”
Watts’ sentiments can explain how UNC managed to keep its composure even when its double-digit lead turned into a two-point deficit in quick succession. They also align with a message Hatchell has preached on numerous occasions: UNC, despite its close losses to quality opponents, is deserving of respect.
It took a “wow moment,” but they might just get some now.
“When you have a 'wow moment,' it’s usually preceded by fear but followed by joy,” Hatchell said.
Against Notre Dame, whatever fear UNC might have had quickly vanished. The joy from Sunday afternoon, however, will stick around for a while.
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