GREENSBORO — The PA announcer had an update for the Greensboro Coliseum coming out of the halftime break of Friday’s game between No. 1 seed Notre Dame and No. 8 seed North Carolina.
A long Paris Kea two that had cut Notre Dame’s lead to 39-31 earlier in the first half was, on closer inspection, a 3-pointer.
Before the Fighting Irish had even inbounded the ball to start the second half, the pesky Tar Heels had whittled their 45-37 halftime deficit to seven points.
The Tar Heels have persisted all season, clawing back when the tides seemed to be turning against them. Even in a loss, UNC (18-14, 8-8 ACC) had already done enough Friday that, for the first time in four years, its exit from the ACC Tournament didn’t spell the definite end of its season.
After the game — a 95-77 victory for the defending national champions and No. 4 ranked Fighting Irish — Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw analyzed the Tar Heels' chances in the NCAA Tournament. It was UNC that had unseated her team from its No. 1 national ranking with an upset in Chapel Hill earlier this season.
“I think they're going to be a really tough out,” McGraw said. “I wouldn't like to see them again.”
Before the two teams’ Jan. 27 matchup, UNC had been reeling. The Tar Heels were 2-4 in ACC play entering the home game versus the top-ranked Irish.
Fast forward a week later, and UNC was 5-4 in conference play with two wins versus top-10 teams. The team added three more conference wins over the remainder of the season to finish 8-8 in the ACC.
With a win over Georgia Tech in its ACC Tournament opener on Thursday, North Carolina is expected to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
Since that time, the Tar Heels were embroiled in an academic scandal that led to the transfer of all four members of their No. 1 2013 recruiting class. Though the NCAA didn't find the school guilty of any charges, the team has been rebuilding nonetheless.
“We went through a lot with the — because we were the top team in the country there until the NCAA thing hit, and we went through a lot there,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “But we persevered through it. It's over. And we're back to being one of the top teams, I feel like, in the country.”
Junior guard Shayla Bennett, who had 17 points against the Fighting Irish Friday, and played 40 minutes for the second straight day, is prepared for her first trip to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, no player on the team has played in the postseason before.
“Coach Hatchell is always telling us, 'People don't respect us enough,'” Bennett said. “So we are just trying to get that respect back, and build up to what North Carolina used to be.”
This season, UNC’s main struggle has been keeping all five starters on the floor. Regular starters Janelle Bailey, Stephanie Watts and Kea missed a combined 10 games.
Watts has been out the past five games since hyperextending her knee against Virginia, but Hatchell expects her to return by tournament time.
Her return gives the Tar Heels the same starting five that knocked off Notre Dame earlier this season entering postseason play.
Bailey, who returned Friday from a one-game suspension, had 19 points and 10 rebounds. She likes the trajectory of the Tar Heels.
“We lost, it was a tough loss,” said Bailey, a sophomore center. “But we gave it all, and there is excitement because we are peaking, and that's a good thing.”
With less than five seconds to play on Friday and the result of the game decided, Bennett missed a jumper that was rebounded by teammate Jaelynn Murray. Murray put the ball back up, making a jump shot with four seconds to go and taking away the satisfaction of an even 20-point win for Notre Dame. It was an otherwise meaningless shot to end the game, as UNC now heads back to Chapel Hill to await its Selection Monday fate.
But it was another example of a UNC team that has been down but not out throughout the season, and goes into a two-week break knowing that it has likely scrapped its way back into postseason play.
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