BLOOMINGTON, Ind.— When in doubt, the North Carolina women's basketball team has always turned to its defense.
In contests against Oregon and Iowa State at the Phil Knight Invitational, the Tar Heels fell behind early, highlighted by a 17-point deficit in the first half against the Cyclones. But stifling late-game defense in both matchups allowed UNC to claw its way out with two victories.
Both comebacks started on the defensive end. On Thursday at No. 5 Indiana, several defensive breakdowns prevented another UNC come-from-behind win. After being down by 16 points at the half, North Carolina allowed the Hoosiers to run away with an 87-63 win.
“(Indiana) shot really well,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We didn’t guard the arc. We didn’t guard the paint. We didn’t guard penetration. We didn’t guard connected. We were uncharacteristically not good on that end.”
Contrary to the sluggish starts North Carolina has become accustomed to this season, UNC came out firing. A pair of triples and a Kennedy Todd-Williams free throw helped UNC open up a seven-point advantage less than two minutes into the contest.
But as quick as North Carolina sprang ahead, its defense came crashing down.
In the next two minutes of play, Indiana erased its deficit thanks to the Hoosiers’ inside-out offense. The quick 8-0 scoring spurt was capped off by first-year guard Henna Sandvik’s open 3-pointer from the corner.
“We had some lapses early to where we let them get wide-open threes,” junior guard Deja Kelly said. “Then down the line, within the game — even when our hands were in their faces — the basket felt huge for them.”
By the end of the first half, the Hoosiers opened up a double-digit lead and had knocked down eight shots from distance. The 3-point barrage featured a range of high-difficulty makes from Indiana, like senior guard Sara Scalia’s shot multiple feet behind the arc that seamlessly swished through the net.
Many Tar Heels said they felt at ease despite trailing by 16 points at the half, noting their previous experiences this year gave them confidence heading into the third quarter.
This time, the hostile environment eventually snapped North Carolina. With nearly six thousand people crowded inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, UNC’s lack of communication on both ends of the court continued.
“There were a lot of fans trying to get you riled up,” Todd-Williams said. “We’re going to have those crowds at Louisville or N.C. State. So, I think this was a good test for us.”
With the home crowd behind them, the Hoosiers meticulously exposed North Carolina on every level offensively.
Junior guard Sydney Parrish canned four 3-pointers en route to finishing with 24 points. Senior forward Mackenzie Holmes reached into her deep post-move bag to finish with a game-high 25 points.
“What you saw tonight (from Indiana) was what I’ve seen on film,” Banghart said. “It’s a team that can spread you out. They’ve got one of the better centers in the game on their team. They cut with incredible pace (and) they trust each other.”
Although some may point at the Tar Heels’ first loss of the season as an opportunity for UNC to grow, Banghart doesn't “think that you have to lose to win.”
Instead, North Carolina's head coach would rather see her team get back to its winning ways and grow from there, and Banghart knows that starts on the defensive end.
“When we look back through it there wasn’t any aspect of our defensive connectedness that caused a problem for (Indiana),” she said.
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