This could be a story about Shayla Bennett, whose team-high 20 points came when North Carolina needed them most. Or Taylor Koenen, who contributed a crucial double-double of her own. Or Janelle Bailey’s defense. Or Madinah Muhammad’s free-throw shooting.
See where this is going?
This monumental win for the women’s basketball team — a 66-60 upset of No. 9 N.C. State, which entered the game 14-0 — was no one player’s doing. It was about as egalitarian as a basketball game can get. And that’s exactly how the Tar Heels, who moved to 12-3 on Wednesday night, wanted it to be.
“Everyone brought their piece today,” Koenen said.
Under the leadership of first-year coach Courtney Banghart, UNC has been reinvigorated: blowing out non-conference opponents, securing Power 5 wins and having unashamed fun along the way to its best start since 2014-15.
But, for a team that ranked 110th in the NCAA’s RPI, which measures strength of schedule, before this game, the Wolfpack were undoubtedly a “prove-it” opponent.
N.C. State came to Chapel Hill with a spotless record and a host of talented players, most notably star sophomore Elissa Cunane, the reigning National Player of the Week, and sharp-shooting guard Aislinn Konig.
The Tar Heels played David to the Wolfpack’s Goliath last February, when they handed 21-0 N.C. State its first loss of the season at Reynolds Coliseum. More present on North Carolina’s mind, though, was the revenge N.C. State enacted on their rival later in the month at Carmichael Arena.
Case in point: storylines were abound for an already-major rivalry game.
And after a high-scoring first quarter featuring a combined 10 3-pointers, UNC and N.C. State took turns grappling with that pressure. One team would seize the momentum. The other would snatch it back.
That was most evident in a frenetic second quarter. N.C. State started with an 8-0 run; UNC countered with an 11-0 run; and N.C. State ended with a 7-0 run to bring a 38-28 lead into halftime.
“We had to grind it,” Banghart said.
As North Carolina chipped away throughout the quarter, that effort became more and more apparent on defense. In an effort to stop Konig and other shooters, North Carolina played tight on the perimeter and left Bailey, its junior center, alone in the paint to defend Cunane. And the gamble paid off.
After three quarters, Cunane, who averaged 27 points last week, had two. She finished with eight points on 3-11 shooting, 13 rebounds and five turnovers.
“During the game, it was really just staying the course,” Bailey said. “She has multiple moves. She doesn’t stop. I get one stop on her, next time she's going to go at it again. I knew that. I just had to stay the course, stay down ... after a while, I think she kind of had enough.”
Cunane’s struggles, unsurprisingly, had a direct effect on N.C. State’s lead. The Wolfpack led by as many as 14 in the first half, but after three quarters, the teams were tied at 46.
That set the stage for a final — and ultimately effective — display of UNC’s balanced attack.
All five of UNC’s starters — Bennett, Muhammad, Koenen, Bailey and first-year Malu Tshitenge — average at least 12 points per game. And all five converted in the final 10 minutes, which saw them outscore the Wolfpack 20-14.
Bennett was the headliner, with tough layups galore. But it was Koenen who gave UNC a 54-50 lead with a fadeaway jumper; Bailey and Tshitenge who converted contested layups; and Muhammad who sank four dagger free-throws in the final 33 seconds.
“Everyone had a little in that win, on both sides of the ball,” Banghart said. “That's a really good team; that's not just a few players. So we needed a full team. Our mantra tonight was us versus them — just so happy for the kids that our ‘us’ was enough.”
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