GREENSBORO, N.C. — The No. 5 seed North Carolina women’s basketball team (25-7, 13-5 ACC) fell to No. 1 seed South Carolina (32-2, 15-1 SEC), 69-61, in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Friday.
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston scored the first five points for the Gamecocks, despite being double-teamed by UNC sophomores Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole in the paint. Sophomore guard Deja Kelly responded with a mid-range pull-up jumper.
South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson then scored back-to-back threes, but UNC graduate guard Carlie Littlefield answered with a triple of her own. Littlefield continued giving the Tar Heels life with a fastbreak assist, stripping Boston in the paint and scoring a fastbreak layup of her own.
Kelly scored three more field goals, including another jumper and a pair of contested drives. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart elected to sideline their post players for the remainder of the first quarter, leading to more outside scoring from South Carolina.
Yet, the Tar Heels found themselves with a 23-22 lead heading into the second quarter. The physicality continued to show from both teams — the Gamecocks registered six personal fouls, but the Tar Heels could only capitalize on six of their 10 free throw attempts.
Outstanding guard play bolstered South Carolina’s offense, with guard Zia Cooke and Henderson combining for 26 of the Gamecocks’ 39 first half points. Cooke and Henderson exploited UNC’s 2-3 zone defense, nailing six triples on a combined 11 attempts. South Carolina led 39-31 at halftime.
The Gamecocks kept finding the basket on second chance points going into the second half, and led by as much as 10 three minutes into the third period. UNC went on a 6-0 run, but South Carolina continued to dominate on the glass, securing an offensive rebound nearly every possession.
Things started to go awry for North Carolina when Kelly picked up an offensive and defensive foul within the span of a minute. South Carolina held a 56-45 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Kelly scored seven of UNC’s 11 points for the first half of the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels forced a few defensive stops, which led to a reverse baseline layup from sophomore guard Kennedy Todd-Williams and a trey from Littlefield. South Carolina still held a 65-59 lead with 3:18 to play.
A Poole layup off a Kelly assist trimmed the Gamecocks’ lead to four points. UNC slowly worked its way to the bonus by drawing fouls, but Littlefield missed both free throws with 1:22 to play. Boston proceeded to power her way through for a layup, and Kelly turned the ball over.
From there, Boston was sent to the line and secured the win with a pair of free throws.
Who stood out?
Kelly shined for UNC on both ends of the floor throughout the entire game.
She finished with 23 points on 9-18 shooting. And when shots weren’t falling, Kelly was a defensive pest — stripping the ball from Boston before she could set her feet in the paint, drawing charges and jumping South Carolina’s perimeter passing lanes.
South Carolina’s big three delivered once again, with Boston pouring in 28 points and Cooke and Henderson adding a combined 28 points. Boston also completed another monster double-double, grabbing 22 rebounds.
When was it decided?
Littlefield had the chance to make the contest a one-possession game, but her missed free throws, followed by Boston’s deuce and a Kelly turnover put the game out of reach for the Tar Heels.
In a broader scope, the undersized Tar Heels were dominated on the boards. The Gamecocks scored 27 second chance points to UNC’s six and grabbed 24 offensive rebounds to UNC’s seven.
Why does it matter?
For the entire season, the seemingly untouchable Gamecocks never dipped below No. 1 in the AP Top 25. South Carolina has only lost two games this season — by an average margin of 1.5 points.
But South Carolina’s lasting dominance didn’t matter to UNC heading into tonight’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. For 40 minutes, the Tar Heels fought for every last loose ball and rebound.
Banghart will return to Carmichael Arena in November with all five starters likely returning for next season. Tonight, North Carolina showed its synergy and grit can compete with even the country’s most talented and experienced teams.
When do they play next?
The loss marks the conclusion of North Carolina’s season.
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