Paris Kea would be the hero. With seven seconds to play, the ball was in the air on its way to her.
When the North Carolina women's basketball team came out of the timeout trailing by five, a comeback wasn’t probable. But neither was the performance Kea had just had in her final quarter of basketball at Carmichael Arena.
Trailing No. 9 N.C. State by as many as 11 points late in the third quarter, UNC’s redshirt senior guard took over.
With 2:08 to play in the fourth, Kea drove at the basket and got up a jumper while being fouled. Her 14th point of the quarter put UNC up by two. Drive after drive had looked much the same, as Kea was determined to get to the basket.
The lone senior for UNC, she was bound to respond in her senior day game, according to her family.
“I was watching the clock, and I was waiting,” Willie Kea, her father, said. “I said, ‘It’s about time for her to turn it on now.’”
“I can see it in her,” her brother Jermani Kea said. “When she wants it, she will go after it.”
So Kea would be the hero here at the end, just as she had been in so many big games in her three-year UNC career since transferring from Vanderbilt.
She had poured in 36 points on this court last year, including an overtime-forcing, buzzer-beating three en route to stunning then-No. 15 Duke. In the same gym, she had led UNC over then-No. 1 Notre Dame with 30 points and 10 assists a month ago.
But on Sunday afternoon, it was N.C. State’s Dd Rogers who got her hands around the Jocelyn Jones inbound pass meant for Paris. Rogers dribbled to safety on the far side of the court as the final seven seconds of Paris' final home game drained away.
The interception sealed it. The Wolfpack won the game, 74-69.
After the game, N.C. State head coach Wes Moore gave insight into the level of respect opposing coaches have for the Tar Heel guard.
“I think I'll probably drive over here for graduation, cheer and shake her hand,” Moore said. “I'll be glad to see her leaving because she's given us fits … It's not fair, but we've come to expect that from her.”
After the buzzer, Paris, who had 32 points, five assists and four steals, walked with her team to the end of the court where Rogers had found refuge moments before. The players stood in a line in front of the Tar Heel pep band as the alma mater played.
Huddling up with her team at the end of the song, Paris wiped her face with her jersey. Her teammates ran off the court and to the locker room, while she went over to the stands to greet her family.
It seemed like her entire family had made the trip for her senior day. They all wore shirts with Paris’ face on them, and the words “Major ‘Kea’ Alert” emblazoned across the back. A line formed up the aisle.
She finally trotted back to the locker room.
Paris sat with head coach Sylvia Hatchell as they fielded questions from reporters. The coach heaped praise on the player.
“She'll go down as one of our best guards that we've ever had here,” Hatchell said.
After the postgame press conference, Kea walked through the concourse of Carmichael Arena, ducking down the nearest set of stairs to avoid a big mass of fans at the front entrance that her teammate had warned her about. She headed back to her family.
Her parents and brother were waiting on the court as they had been after every game this season.
Coming from Greensboro, it was a short drive to watch Paris play, and they never missed the opportunity.
“At Vanderbilt, my family couldn't make a lot of games,” Kea said. “So definitely having my family at the games, all the games, here an hour before the games, that will be one of the things I will miss the most.”
And her family loved being here. Her dad had never been able to get enough of watching her play, even attending her practices when she was a kid. More than just basketball games, her mom loved being able to be closer to her daughter.
“That is everything,” Swanee Kea, her mother, said. “That I'm able to be here, that I'm able to give her momma love.”
The parents continued to chat with friends and family on the court as they waited for her to come down.
But Kea had gotten stopped in the stands and was signing bobble heads of her that had been given out before the game with her trademark golden hair on top. She hadn't quite avoided the pile of fans.
But she was all smiles. She laughed and joked and talked to kids one by one as they came up to her in bunches.
Everybody wanted an autograph, a picture, or just a word with the Tar Heel star. Even in a heartbreaking loss, Kea was treated like the hero that she has so often been for North Carolina.
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