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Friday December 9th

North Carolina women's basketball thrives under pressure, dominates Virginia, 70-53

Sophomore center guard Janelle Bailey (44) fights for the ball during UNC's 70-53 win against Virginia at Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019
Buy Photos Sophomore center guard Janelle Bailey (44) fights for the ball during UNC's 70-53 win against Virginia at Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019

Heading into the game against Virginia on Sunday, the North Carolina women’s basketball team had four games left in the regular season and an exponential amount of pressure on each player’s shoulders. 

By the third quarter of the game, it was clear that UNC (16-11, 7-6 ACC) was not simply surviving under the weight of that pressure but thriving against the Cavaliers (10-15, 4-8 ACC) as North Carolina went on to win, 70-53.

"Every win is a good win," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "And I am proud of these guys."

One would think that the few remaining opportunities to lock in a NCAA Tournament spot would be enough pressure for the Tar Heels. However, things got even harder for UNC after the opening tip.

Redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts came out with a high level of intensity, hitting a 3-pointer five seconds after the tip. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, Watts suffered a knee injury and did not play for the rest of the game, leaving a huge void in UNC’s offense.

Along with Watts suffering an injury, sophomore center Janelle Bailey and junior guard Taylor Koenen each picked up a pair of fouls early. Junior transfer Shayla Bennett refused to shy away from the challenge and shouldered many of the responsibilities for the team as she led UNC from that point on.

Bennett finished with an all-around impressive performance, scoring 10 points, snagging nine rebounds and coming up with a trifecta of blocks on the defensive end. After the game, Bennett described how her scoring is linked to her success on defense.

“I think my defense leads to my offense,” Bennett said. “My team and coaches trust me to make the right decision with the ball, so it’s all just kind of coming together for me.”

Things started to come together for Bailey as well once the second half kicked off. On Friday, it was announced that Bailey was named one of 10 finalists for the Lisa Leslie Award, an honor bestowed upon the best center in Division 1 women’s basketball each year.

After a quiet first half consisting of only four points due to foul trouble and some struggles in the paint, critics would probably argue that the pressure of the award might be affecting Bailey’s play, or that she may not be deserving of the nomination. After the first three minutes of the third quarter, those critics would stop talking.

Bailey opened the second half with a basket in the paint, a pair of made free throws and another basket, scoring six of North Carolina’s first eight points in the second half. Bailey finished the game with 14 points and nine rebounds, just one board shy of her 12th double-double this season. Bailey shared her thoughts about the change after halftime, or lack thereof.

“Nothing changed,” Bailey said. “I know I can score the ball every time. I don’t get discouraged by missing shots.”

Against Virginia, the Tar Heels celebrated Alumni Day, recognizing over 70 alumni involved in the women’s basketball program throughout the years, including both the 1984 ACC Championship team and the 1994 NCAA Championship team. Hatchell shared her thoughts about the alumni after the game.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Hatchell said. “I think they feel like they can conquer anything, and they have no fears.”

The Tar Heels hurdled over every obstacle in their path to get the result that they needed. Between fulfilling the expectations of the alumni present, overcoming injuries and fighting for a much-needed win to help secure a postseason appearance, UNC could’ve easily been crushed under the pressure. 

Instead, North Carolina rose to the occasion and walked away with a dominant victory over the Cavaliers.

@McMastersJ

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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