GREENSBORO – Jocelyn Jones lost her shoe and struggled to put it back on, aggressively trying to jam her foot back in as her teammates were forced to play defense four against five for a possession and gave up a basket.
Later on, Leah Church took an elbow to the face, the kind that catches you off guard and makes you squint your eyes if you aren’t about to cry.
Jones’ shoe gaffe and Church’s second elbow to the face in a month’s span – she took one in a loss to Duke in February that left a black eye – were minor inconveniences on what were career days for both players in No. 8 seed North Carolina’s 80-73 win over No. 9 seed Georgia Tech in the second round of the ACC Tournament. The victory sets up a rematch with No. 1 seed Notre Dame, which the Tar Heels shocked in January, in the quarterfinals on Friday.
With sophomore center and second-team All-ACC selection Janelle Bailey suspended and third-leading scorer Stephanie Watts still out with a hyperextended knee, UNC (18-13, 8-8 ACC) needed multiple players to step up against the Yellow Jackets (17-13, 7-9 ACC), and that’s exactly what happened.
Church notched a career-high 20 points in just her fifth start of the season, powered by 6-for-8 shooting from 3-point range. Jones, meanwhile, made the most of her season-high 24 minutes, scoring a career-best 14 points to go along with nine rebounds.
Having lost three of its last five games – including an ugly 62-44 defeat at Duke on Sunday – UNC desperately needed a win to get back on track with the NCAA Tournament approaching. That task was made more difficult when Bailey was given a one-game suspension following her ejection against the Blue Devils. UNC, a team that’s been knocked for not having much depth, was especially shorthanded against Georgia Tech.
That didn’t seem to matter Thursday, however. Not with Church scoring the Tar Heels’ first nine points and Jones’ physical approach to the game, one that showed up in the box score with five offensive rebounds.
“I tell them probably all the time, probably every day – you never know when you're going to be called upon,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Always be ready.”
Against Georgia Tech, Church definitely was. UNC’s first three made shots all came via Church 3-pointers, with the Purlear, N.C., native keeping the Tar Heels in the game early on despite 28.6 percent shooting as a team in the first quarter.
Opponents should know what to expect when Church is on the floor. Entering Thursday’s game, the 5-foot-8 guard had 57 career 3-point makes compared to just two 2-point field goals. And yet, Church found open looks repeatedly.
“The kid can shoot the threes,” Hatchell said. “If she’s got time to get set, it’s usually going in.”
Church’s biggest moment of the day came with just 39 seconds left in the contest. With the shot clock close to expiring and UNC holding on to a four-point lead, junior guard Shayla Bennett dished to Church, who provided a dagger from the left corner to all but secure the win and give her a new career high.
“It's been a dream of mine to play in the ACC Tournament,” Church said. “To have this chance, I didn't want to waste it. I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team.”
Against Georgia Tech, that also meant playing defense. During one stretch, Church took a charge, stole an inbounds pass and drew an offensive foul on Georgia Tech’s leading scorer on the season, Elizabeth Balogun, when she took the elbow to the face.
“She brings it like no other,” UNC redshirt senior guard Paris Kea said of Church. “And I think that her grit kind of brushed off on me in the second half.”
Grit is also a word that applies to Jones, a player known for bringing energy off the bench. But on Thursday, her contributions went beyond hustling hard. Ten of Jones’ 14 points came in the second half, as she became a reliable scoring option down low.
“We’ve been playing with each other for six months now,” Jones said. “So I feel like we just got in a good offensive rhythm.”
In a play that summed up her overall performance, Jones grabbed an offensive rebound with 1:19 remaining in the game, got fouled and made a pair of free throws to put UNC up six.
“She loves a game like this,” Hatchell said. “I mean really – in practice, you know, she’s knocking people all over the place.”
Against Notre Dame, UNC will get Bailey back, and Watts’ status is day-to-day.
But for once, UNC showed it can win with multiple of its key contributors out, thanks to players like Church and Jones.
“I hope it put a lot of fear in our competition,” Jones said. “Just to know that any one of us can help the team out.”
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