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.