After winning five of its last six regular season games to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, the North Carolina women’s basketball team fell flat in the first round of the ACC Tournament on Thursday, losing to Wake Forest 82-71.
As a matchup between the No. 8 (UNC) and No. 9 (Wake Forest) seeds, the game was set to be competitive. The teams met twice in the regular season, with UNC narrowly falling by three points in the first bout and winning the second in overtime.
With both teams hoping to secure a victory that could strengthen their respective resumes for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, this game had broader implications than simply making it to the next round of the ACC Tournament. While UNC was trending upward with two consecutive wins, Wake Forest was in dire need of a win after losing its last three conference games.
"We had talked about that before,” UNC senior Janelle Bailey said. “As soon as we found out we were playing them, we knew that they were going to be desperate, and we were not desperate for a win.”
In what has been a common theme this season, the Tar Heels found themselves down early and had to play much of the game from behind. They started off slowly — missing shots and getting outrebounded — while Wake Forest skewered them from behind the arc, shooting 7-11 from the 3-point line in the first half.
“Pretty uncharacteristic that we allowed defense to be our heel tonight,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I think we’ve been pretty good defensively all year long.”
The Tar Heels fought back from a 14-point deficit and briefly took the lead midway through the third quarter. The comeback attempt was led by first-year Alyssa Ustby, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds, six of them coming on the offensive glass.
After the game, both Banghart and Bailey expressed disappointment that Ustby was left off the ACC’s All-Freshman Team, which was revealed on Tuesday. While Wake Forest ended up pulling away late in the fourth quarter, Ustby’s performance was a silver lining for the Tar Heels.
“There’s no way this team is in the NCAA Tournament without Alyssa Ustby, no way,” Banghart said. “And so, I thought we sort of challenged her to show whoever didn’t think she was good enough, and now in the ACC Tournament she has 23 and nine.”
Despite the first-round exit, Banghart believes the team has positioned itself well enough to feel comfortable about earning an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.
As of March 3, the Tar Heels were 32nd overall and fifth in the ACC in the NET rankings, which the NCAA selection committee uses to consider at-large bids. The team also has a signature win, as it defeated No. 4 N.C. State in early February.
Banghart partly attributed Thursday’s loss to not treating the Wake Forest matchup like a must-win game.
“In a way, finally we can breathe, and we haven’t breathed in literally a month, you know? And every game was this urgent, ‘You have to win or your season’s over,’” Banghart said. “Then today, instead, we’re actually playing for a better seed, and I think that we took our foot off the gas a little bit.”
The Tar Heels now have a small break in their season as they await their postseason fate. The NCAA Selection Show — where the tournament bracket will be revealed — will air on March 15.
In the meantime, the team will have to address the problems with ball movement and defense that were prevalent on Thursday. Taking its foot off the gas isn’t something this team can afford to do in March.
“We just had a bad game, and unfortunately it was the first one of the ACC Tournament,” Ustby said. “But we’re hungry, we’re ready for the next one.”