WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina women’s basketball spent most of Sunday afternoon chipping away at a small lead Wake Forest wouldn’t relinquish. When the Tar Heels finally pulled ahead midway through the fourth quarter, it felt like a turning point.
When guard Madinah Muhammad made clutch baskets on consecutive possessions — a go-ahead 3-pointer with just over a minute left and a tough lefty layup to keep UNC up three with 22 seconds remaining — it felt like a dagger.
After flirting with the much-needed win that could have broken its four-game losing streak late in regulation, North Carolina allowed a game-tying 3-pointer with six seconds left and ultimately lost 82-79 in overtime to Wake Forest.
“In possession games, players make plays,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “And they made more than we did.”
The loss, UNC’s fifth in a row, only added to the Tar Heels’ untimely freefall. At 16-11 and 7-9 in conference, they’re now comfortably in the lower half of the ACC standings as the conference tournament in Greensboro approaches.
Sunday’s matinee against Wake Forest (14-14, 7-10 ACC) seemed like a golden opportunity to get back on track. After losing at Boston College last weekend, North Carolina had a full week off to prepare for the Demon Deacons. The free time, due to the team's ACC schedule, was North Carolina's longest gap between games since holiday break.
UNC was dealt a blow, though, when 6-foot-4 center Janelle Bailey, who averages a team-high 14.9 points and 9.5 rebounds, was sidelined with an injury ahead of the game against the Demon Deacons. Junior guard Leah Church made her first start of the season in place of Bailey.
“We didn’t really have a lot of things drawn up this game, because we had to play different,” Muhammad said.
Rolling with a shorter-than-usual lineup of guards Muhammad, Church, Shayla Bennett and Taylor Koenen alongside forward Malu Tshitenge, North Carolina trailed 18-12 after a quarter.
From then on, though, Banghart opted for a smaller lineup by rotating out Tshitenge for guards Nia Daniel and Kennady Tucker. The substitutions put Koenen, a 6-foot-2 guard, at a quasi-center position.
Against a taller Demon Deacon lineup, the five-guard strategy worked well on both ends. UNC hung with Wake Forest on the boards, and quicker players often beat their defenders on fast breaks or down the baseline. By halftime, they were still hanging on and trailed 31-27.
“If a post is guarding me, that's obviously a mismatch,” said Koenen, who had a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double. “I guess we were just trying to spread the floor at times.”
North Carolina again made a run in the third quarter with five consecutive makes — and a 6-0 run in a minute and a half — to tie the Demon Deacons at 43-43. Wake Forest, in a run that foreshadowed the ones it would later make, ripped off six straight points to take a 49-43 lead into the fourth.
In a back-and-forth fourth quarter, UNC took its largest lead at the 2:34 mark, when Bennett put her team up 59-55 with two free throws. When Wake Forest tied the game at 59-59, Muhammad shot back with her aforementioned 3-pointer and leaning layup — and North Carolina, up 64-61 with 22 seconds remaining, looked in control.
“I just took what the defense gave me, played with my teammates and created,” said Muhammad, who scored a team-high 21. “If I felt like it was a mismatch, I just went at her.”
After two iterations of Wake Forest scoring and fouling Koenen, who made all of her free throws, North Carolina had a final chance to close out the victory it had scrapped so hard for.
Leading 68-65, the Tar Heels chose not to intentionally foul, and Wake Forest’s Gina Conti sank a game-tying three from the left wing over Tucker, a first-year guard. Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum went berserk.
“Second time in a row we haven't done it,” Banghart said of not fouling. “We didn't do it at Georgia Tech either (in a Jan. 23 overtime win). It matters little what my philosophy is. It matters more what the execution is.”
In overtime, UNC and Wake Forest traded buckets until the Tar Heels hit a cold streak, and the Demon Deacons got five straight points from guard Alex Sharp. Her dagger 3-pointer with 1:24 left put Wake Forest up 78-72.
Seconds later, in a sequence emblematic of its losing streak, North Carolina missed four shots in the paint that would have cut its deficit to 78-76. And the final buzzer soon sounded on an 82-79 loss — one that turned Muhammad’s late-game heroics into just another line in the stat sheet.
“The losing streak is ugly,” Koenen said later, “but I guess that just makes us more hungry to get the next win. We’re going to try to do that Thursday against Notre Dame.”
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