When the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the first half in the North Carolina women's basketball team's bout against James Madison, the Tar Heels walked into the locker room forced to reckon with an experience they hadn't faced all season — they were losing.
Following three blowout wins to open the season, the Tar Heels struggled early on Sunday against the Dukes and headed into the break with a four-point deficit. Although North Carolina was ultimately able to secure its fourth win, 76-65, the team had to dig deep and look to its leaders to swing the momentum for a late push.
From the beginning of the game, the Dukes' offense gave the Tar Heels fits. UNC junior guard Deja Kelly described the team's defense as “discombobulated” in the first quarter, which allowed JMU to drain five 3-pointers in the first quarter.
Trailing at the break, the Tar Heels knew something needed to change.
Both Kelly and graduate guard Eva Hodgson described the team’s talk at halftime as being instrumental to the second-half turnaround. Defense was a major sticking point, as UNC had allowed JMU to take too many high-percentage shots from beyond the arc. Hodgson pointed out that North Carolina's “offense comes from (its) defense,” so it was crucial to tighten the defense in order to help shots start to fall.
In the end, though, it was a less analytical shift that allowed the team to flip the switch.
“It was really just the realization of ‘We’re not losing this game. We’re going to do what it takes to not lose it,’” Hodgson said.
When the clock started in the third quarter, Hodgson played with a renewed sense of energy. She had been focusing too much on facilitating the offense in the first half of the game, and in the second half, she began to take things herself.
The new mentality allowed her to capitalize on 3-point opportunities, as she drained three crucial triples late in the third quarter to help the Tar Heels take the lead.
“I just went into that second half with the shooter's mentality of letting it fly,” Hodgson said. “Thankfully they were falling which allowed us to gain momentum and kinda just continue us through that second half.”
Once Hodgson fell into a steady rhythm, the rest of the team seemed to follow. The Tar Heels started playing better defense and forced their opponents to take harder shots, which held the Dukes to just 32.2 percent shooting in the second half.
For someone like Hodgson, who lists her top priority as “filling the needs of the team,” this turnaround was crucial.
“We’re a much better team when Eva takes threes,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We’re just a better team that way.”
In the second half, Kelly came to life in her own sense. After an extremely quiet first half in which she only put two points on the board, she made a variety of perimeter shots and converted at the foul line to finish with 22 points.
“Our performance today — how we fought and came back to stay in that lead — that was definitely a great test for us,” Kelly said.
The gritty road win was an important test for the Tar Heels, as they stare down an intimidating gauntlet of future opponents.
North Carolina will need to showcase this resilience once more as they head to the Phil Knight Invitational later this week to face a ranked Oregon team. Banghart points to this game as essential in the team's preparation for what lies ahead.
“It was a battle — we needed that,” she said. “It came down to just a really gritty team finding a way to win.”
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