WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When the final buzzer sounded at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Courtney Banghart felt differently than she had in the past 17 days.
The UNC women’s basketball head coach has seen her team lose five consecutive games over that stretch. But after Sunday afternoon’s 82-79 overtime loss to Wake Forest, Banghart wasn’t mad at her group’s effort.
“There were some games in the past in this losing streak where I’ve been frustrated,” Banghart said. “I’m not frustrated; I’m disappointed.”
Since beating Clemson at home on Feb. 2, UNC lost its next four games by an average margin of 13.8 points. Against the Demon Deacons, though — even without junior center Janelle Bailey, who was sidelined with an injury for the first time this season — the Tar Heels didn’t give up at any point in the contest.
“We’ve just gotta step up when one person is down,” redshirt senior guard Madinah Muhammad said. “Other people, we just have to step up and fill in for that.”
Led by Muhammad’s 21 points and seven rebounds, they never quit fighting. Not when Wake Forest jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first eight minutes. Not when they trailed by eight in the middle of the third quarter.
And not even when the outcome was already decided: senior guard Shayla Bennett made a layup as the final horn rang that did nothing more than change the amount her team would lose by from five to three points.
“They played really hard,” Banghart said. “They bought into what we asked them to do on both ends. They stuck together. They had some adversity and just kept going — they never quit.”
But Bailey’s absence was certainly a pretty significant hurdle, in terms of productivity and energy on the court.
Without the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, the offensive burden was expected to fall on senior guard Taylor Koenen, who went into Sunday second on the team in scoring at 14.2 points per game. At halftime, she was 0-7 from the floor with all three of her points coming from the foul line.
UNC was off to another dismal shooting performance, this time hitting 31.3 percent of its shots in the first half. The Tar Heels only found themselves down by four at the break, though.
The reason why? Effort.
A group that trotted out just one true big — 6-foot-3 forward Malu Tshitenge — outrebounded the Demon Deacons, 22-19, through two quarters.
For reference: Wake Forest played five players over six feet tall for at least 10 minutes each. UNC played just two such players.
The Tar Heels entered the fourth quarter down six, but clawed their way to a tie in less than two minutes with a jumper from Muhammad and a pair of free throws from both Koenen and Tshitenge.
With six seconds left in regulation, Demon Deacon guard Gina Conti nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing over Tar Heel first-year guard Kennady Tucker. Bennett immediately high-fived Tucker in an attempt to keep her teammate’s morale up.
“We’re just trying to stay together,” said Koenen, who finished with 17 points. “We preach being together and having each other’s back.”
Then, when Koenen’s buzzer-beater came up well short and sent the contest to overtime, that’s what they did — they played for one another until the end.
UNC shot 5-14 in overtime and never led, but it again outrebounded Wake Forest to finish with a 46-41 advantage in the category. The Tar Heels played until the clock hit zero, literally.
While Bennett’s last-second layup might have meant nothing in terms of the game’s outcome, it embodied the fight the Tar Heels showed Sunday.
And for Banghart, on this afternoon, that was enough.
“There’s no one who sat in this gym and was like, ‘What is up with North Carolina?’” Banghart said. “Instead, I think you gained a few fans.”
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