RALEIGH — All season, Sylvia Hatchell, head coach of the North Carolina women's basketball team, has been adamant that her team deserves respect. In the past week, it has earned plenty.
Just seven days after taking down the reigning national champion and then-No. 1 Notre Dame in a shocking upset, UNC traveled to Raleigh and stunned a sold-out crowd at Reynolds Coliseum, as they took down N.C. State, 64-51.
The win was all the more impressive given that the No. 7 Wolfpack entered the game as the only remaining undefeated team in the entire country. Their record stood at 21-0. Hatchell was full of praise for her squad.
“It’s been a great week,” she said. “I’m so proud of these kids, and I just love them to death. They’re just great kids, and they work really, really hard.”
After starting ACC play with three straight losses, UNC has won five of its last six games to establish itself back in the middle of the pack of the conference and in the thick of the race for an NCAA Tournament bid.
“It’s been exciting for us,” guard Stephanie Watts said. “I wouldn’t want to be out here with any other group. We’ve just been really excited, but we’re never satisfied so we want more. We want to keep it rolling.”
Watts led the Tar Heels with 20 points, including a deep 3-pointer with under two minutes remaining to put the game on ice. The redshirt junior also stepped up in a big way in the first half to keep things close while teammate Paris Kea struggled offensively.
Kea, who had been averaging nearly 30 points a game over the previous three contests, did eventually find her rhythm in the second half, finishing with 17 points.
“I felt like I had to play through some of the fouls,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t get some of the calls, but I had to just tough it out, and I found my teammates when I drove to draw two (defenders) and they knocked it down.”
The refereeing was controversial the entire game, with both the home crowd and N.C. State head coach Wes Moore letting the officials hear it on nearly every call that went against the Wolfpack. Moore could be heard yelling “this is embarrassing” at one point during a long conference between officials to discuss a foul call.
Despite the hostile environment and intense atmosphere, UNC never looked fazed. The game was a back-and-forth battle for much of the first 30 minutes and featured multiple lead changes in the first half alone, but the visitors never let N.C. State stretch its advantage to more than four.
The game hinged on a 9-0 run by UNC to end the third quarter that gave the Tar Heels a 10-point lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Center Janelle Bailey, who finished with 16 points of her own, said the run came down to more intensity on defense.
“I feel like we came out with good intensity at the start of the game,” she said. “But just picking it up, like Steph said, we want more, so that goes down to every half, every quarter, every second, so we definitely picked up our intensity in the second half.”
The theme of wanting more out of this team has been repeated often this season by players and coaches, and now they’re finally starting to prove how good they are to the rest of the country.
“Whether everyone else knows yet or not, we know we have a great team,” Watts said. “We know we’re able to do great things if we just stick with it and stay together, so I think that’s what we’ve been doing, and I think now it’s just really coming together for us.”
If any teams still doubted North Carolina’s abilities after last week’s win over Notre Dame, it’s unlikely they still will after today. When asked if she thought other teams knew how good UNC was at this point, Bailey gave a simple answer: “I think so.”
“I said ‘guys y’all just got to understand, I’ve been doing this for 44 years, y’all are good,’” Hatchell said. “You know, we’ve just got to get over the hump a little bit, got to put a few things together, and I kept saying, ‘there’s another level, probably two levels you guys can reach, and we’re going to get there, y’all just hang in there with me.’”
It’s safe to say that after the past week, the obstacles have been cleared. Only time will tell what level this team can reach.
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