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Disastrous first quarter spells doom for No. 6 UNC women's basketball against No. 19 Michigan

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UNC huddles up before a free throw during the women’s basketball game against Michigan in the Jumpman Invitational at the Spectrum Center on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the North Carolina women's basketball team struggled in the early minutes of its Jumpman Invitational clash against Michigan, the player that gave the Wolverines their first double-digit lead wasn’t even on head coach Courtney Banghart’s scouting report.

“I first was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’” Banghart said.

With just under three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Michigan's first-year forward Chyra Evans launched a shot — the first 3-point attempt of her collegiate career — from the top of the key over a leaping Destiny Adams. The ball rolled in, and just like that, the Wolverines had a 24-13 lead. 

No. 19 Michigan hardly relinquished this lead as the game continued, going on to win the Jumpman Invitational and upset No. 6 UNC by a score of 76-68. North Carolina’s disastrous first quarter, in which the team conceded 35 points and four 3-pointers, proved to be the deciding factor in the game. 

With the threat of 6-foot-3 graduate forward Emily Kiser — who entered Tuesday’s matchup averaging 19 points per game — UNC’s defensive focus was almost entirely predicated on shutting down paint. The Wolverines took advantage of this by lighting it up from the perimeter, especially fifth-year guard Leigha Brown, who knocked down three triples in the opening quarter. 

“The first three I had, I noticed they were just going to lay under the ball screen, so I was like, ‘Let’s see what happens here,’” Brown said. “I had to, hopefully, make them guard me somehow. Luckily I was able to hit a few of those tonight and it opened up a lot of things.”

By the end of the first quarter, you could sense the frustration from UNC’s bench. After a baseline jumper from Brown swished through the net to end the period, redshirt first-year Kayla McPherson bent over in her chair and slapped the court several times. Staff members at the end of the bench smacked their hands and a shout of “that’s her shot!” rang out.

To UNC’s credit, Brown had only hit three 3-pointers in her 10 games prior to Tuesday's contest. Banghart reminded North Carolina during one of its timeouts, however, that the Tar Heels shouldn’t be surprised by Michigan's performance.

“We knew this is a really experienced group,” Banghart said. “Good players have to play well in big games, and they did that. So really, credit to them. They’re forcing them out of what they want to do, and that’s a good thing. We wanted to concede the perimeter to Leigha and instead help to the post, and she made the shots, so good for her.”

UNC’s sluggish start shouldn’t surprise anyone either. This is the fourth-straight game that the Tar Heels have trailed against ranked opponents by double-digits in the first half. On Tuesday night, North Carolina came out flat yet again. 

The calls from UNC's bench to talk on defense started almost immediately and extended into the final minutes of the first quarter. Aside from defensive mishaps that led to a barrage of 3-pointers, junior guards Kennedy Todd-Williams and Deja Kelly forced awkward shots — going a combined 1-8 from the floor in the opening period.

“Once they started going on a run, I think we were kind of getting antsy,” Kelly said. “I don’t think the quality of our shots was good, especially in the first half.”

Not only were North Carolina’s shots not falling, but the team’s ball movement was relatively stagnant. UNC had just three assists in the first quarter, while the Wolverines dished out eight in an effective inside-out method to find spot-up shooters.

Fifth-year shooting guard Eva Hodgson reflected on the lack of offensive rhythm in the postgame press conference. UNC has to focus more on facilitation against higher-quality opponents, she said. 

“Sometimes we were forcing stuff up, myself included,” Hodgson said. “Being able to jump stop and kick and find someone open for the three or pull-up or anything like that will be important for us moving forward.”

Tuesday’s matchup mirrored UNC’s only other loss of the season, an 87-63 defeat against No. 5 Indiana. The Hoosiers shot at a 70 percent clip from behind the arc through three quarters, accumulating a double-digit lead in the first half that the Tar Heels couldn’t overcome. 

Although there is still a long season ahead, North Carolina understands the importance of making adjustments and learning on the fly.

“I think our strength of schedule speaks for itself,” Banghart said. “It’s our fourth-ranked opponent already, and that’s why we’re doing it, (because) we knew the ACC is an incredible challenge. It’s a really different mindset to go from hunting — which is what we did all (last) year, I thought we were better than what people thought — to being hunted. Clearly, my group is still figuring that part out.”

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.