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'We're fighters': UNC women's basketball's rally falls short against No. 5 Louisville

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Senior guard Taylor Koenen Bennett (1) dribbles past an opposing player in the game against Louisville at Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. UNC lost 67-74.

At the start of the fourth quarter, the North Carolina women’s basketball team was down 62-45 to No. 5 Louisville in a game that appeared to be heading toward a blowout. 

And although it wouldn't be enough to get the win, head coach Courtney Banghart’s Tar Heels didn't give up, doing what has defined their season all year long: survive and surprise. Despite the Tar Heels' best efforts, North Carolina fell short of what would've been an impressive comeback, losing to the Cardinals on Sunday, 74-67. 

Leading up to the rally, the game was a tale of two halves for UNC. The team struggled both offensively and defensively, allowing Louisville to disrupt them on both ends of the floor.

The Tar Heels turned the ball over 12 times in the first half alone, more than their current average of 11.5 per game this season. Louisville capitalized, scoring 14 points off of turnovers in the first quarter to give North Carolina fits. At the break, the Cardinals held a 45-29 lead.

In the second half, UNC started to raise its level of play. The Tar Heels took much better care of the ball, only committing two turnovers in the final two quarters. Still, though, they trailed by 17 heading into the final 10 minutes.

That's when the momentum shifted.

The Tar Heels outscored the Cardinals with a 15-5 run over the first five minutes of the period, capped off by a huge steal and score from senior Madinah Muhammad that caused the crowd to erupt in cheer in Carmichael Arena. 

“The word on the street with our league right now is that 'Boy, these Tar Heels are not going to give up,' and I give them a lot of credit for that,” Banghart said.

Muhammad is part of an experienced core, along with junior forward Janelle Bailey and senior guard Taylor Koenen, that provided a spark in the second half. The trio combined for 32 second-half points and got crucial buckets for the team down the stretch, eventually cutting the deficit to four with under two minutes remaining after a big 3-pointer from Koenen.

“We knew the game wasn’t over,” Koenen said. “We knew we could fight until the end.”

That mentality allowed the Tar Heels to recover from a sloppy opening half and take a very talented Louisville team down to the wire. Still, UNC came up empty in the final 1:22, and Louisville only needed a few free throws to salt away the game.

While Banghart said she was proud of the fight her team showed, she isn’t content with moral victories.

“This team and program has too much pride to be excited about playing hard,” she said. “We want to win games.”

Banghart said she knows her players have the right mentality; she also knows in the ACC, they need to play well for all 40 minutes to avoid digging themselves into a hole. 

If that had been the case against the Cardinals, she said, the result could've been different. 

“The next step for this group is to come out from the start and use their toughness as an advantage," Banghart said. "Not as a savior.".

@ryanheller23

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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