The North Carolina women’s basketball team’s first NCAA Tournament game in four years started off promising enough, but the ninth-seeded Tar Heels ultimately fell to No. 8 seed California, 92-72, Saturday afternoon in Waco, Texas.
In the postseason for the first time since 2015, UNC (18-15, 8-8 ACC) led the Golden Bears (20-12, 9-9 Pac-12) by as many as 12 points in the second quarter and took a 40-37 lead into halftime before getting outplayed in the second half.
Redshirt senior guard Paris Kea led the Tar Heels with 22 points in the final game of her college career, while Asha Thomas scored a team-high 19 for Cal.
Here are five takeaways from the game.
UNC starts out hot offensively, attempts to limit Cal playmaker
UNC put together a good offensive performance in its loss to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament over two weeks ago, and the Tar Heels picked up right where they left off on Saturday.
Sharing the ball well, six different Tar Heels scored in the opening quarter, in which UNC shot 53.3 percent from the field. Just as important, UNC initially slowed down Cal All-American center Kristine Anigwe, who had zero points and two turnovers in the first quarter, as UNC led 22-11.
Sophomore center Janelle Bailey guarded Anigwe, although UNC oftentimes double-teamed her, with junior guard Taylor Koenen, redshirt sophomore Jocelyn Jones and even Kea all chipping in. At times, one of those players would front Anigwe, while Bailey remained between her and the basket.
At first, this strategy proved effective, as UNC led for the entirety of the first half.
Cal guards take advantage of freedom
It’s no secret that a key point in UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s game plan was making the Golden Bears go through all options other than Anigwe on offense. Anigwe entered the game having earned a double-double in each of Cal’s 31 contests, but that streak looked like it might end at halftime, as Anigwe had just two points.
But as the two teams entered the break, Cal found itself down by just three, thanks in large part to its guards.
The Golden Bears hit on four of their nine 3-pointers in the second quarter, and Thomas led Cal with 11 points at the half.
That trend continued in the second half, as Cal hit six of 10 shots from downtown after halftime.
Thomas, the younger sister of former UNC men’s basketball player Quentin Thomas, finished with a team-high 19, while guard Jaelyn Brown added 16, 12 of which came on threes.
Ultimately, UNC struggled to win the battle down low
UNC’s Bailey undoubtedly held her own against Anigwe in the first half, scoring 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting. On the other end of the court, Bailey used her physicality to make Anigwe uncomfortable.
But as the game wore down, a role reversal occurred. Anigwe finished with 18, thanks to 16 second-half points, and she got help from reserve center CJ West, who went for 13 points off the bench.
Meanwhile, UNC struggled to feed Bailey as the game went on, and the Charlotte native didn’t get her first second-half bucket until the 2:23 mark of the third quarter. Bailey finished with 15 points for UNC, but shot just 2 of 7 in the second half.
Cal began to win the battle inside and the game turned on its face. With just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, UNC led 45-41, but was outscored 51-27 the rest of the way.
UNC shorthanded once again without Watts
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Hatchell spoke optimistically about the chances of redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts returning from injury. Watts, one of UNC’s top outside shooters (15.2 points per game) and perimeter defenders, hyperextended her knee against Virginia on Feb. 17 and hadn’t played since.
During the ACC Tournament, UNC listed her status as day-to-day and Hatchell was hoping that the two-week layoff between games for the Tar Heels would give Watts enough time to heal.
However, that was not the case. Watts missed her sixth straight game, and ESPN’s Carolyn Peck reported on the broadcast that there was no structural damage to Watts’ knee, but that Hatchell did not want to play her because pain had not subsided.
Without Watts, UNC struggled to get production from its guards outside of Kea.
Kea closes the books on impressive Tar Heel career
After transferring from Vanderbilt, Kea only got to play three seasons in a Tar Heel uniform, but she made the most of them.
For the 82nd time in 91 games at UNC, Kea scored in double figures on Saturday. Kea ended her career averaging 18.0 points per game at North Carolina, the second-highest mark in team history.
Nothing came easy against Cal for Kea, as she was limited to only four points on 1 of 6 shooting in the first half. Yet, she rebounded and went for 18 on 50 percent shooting after halftime.
Eye-catching performances like the 36-point showing against Duke a season ago and her 30-point outburst in an upset over then-No. 1 Notre Dame in January show just how talented Kea is. But her overall consistency was what helped UNC the most as the program reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
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