Trailing by nine at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the North Carolina women's basketball team needed to find something special to pull out a victory against Virginia.
In the end, the team found just that in Kennedy Todd-Williams.
After the Tar Heels pulled ahead to secure a 70-59 victory on Thursday night, the junior guard's career-high 21 points — 11 of which came in the fourth quarter — proved to be the game changer.
“Kennedy is a dog,” junior guard Deja Kelly said. “She really brought that out in the fourth quarter, especially when we needed it the most — and she came up big.”
The Tar Heels couldn't gain much offensive rhythm in the first 30 minutes, being held to just 42 points before the final quarter. The third quarter was especially challenging, as North Carolina finished by shooting only 23.5 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from outside the arc in the period.
But when the team took the court for the final 10 minutes, momentum began to shift. The Tar Heels implemented a full-court press and began to throw their opponents off balance.
“It starts on the defensive end,” Todd-Williams said. “We needed to box out, hit the rebounds, and (to) run because we’re a running team. So, I think that was the shift in mentality for us.”
With the increased defensive pressure, the Tar Heels turned defense into offense and found themselves back in the game.
Todd-Williams was right at the center of the momentum shift. After forcing a Virginia turnover with just over five minutes left, she was able to turn right around and drill a 3-pointer that brought UNC within two for the first time in over 10 minutes. From there, she scored two fast-break layups and sank two free throws to put North Carolina up for good.
“She’s great at the top of the press and I thought that let her get some run-outs as well,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “There’s no bigger fan of Toddy’s game than mine.”
When Todd-Williams was asked about the key to her fourth-quarter performance was, a grin spread across her face.
“I’m a vet,” she said. “I guess I can say that now.”
Despite entering the final quarter with three fouls, it was her experience that gave her the confidence to take chances, keep shooting and play tough defense in the fourth quarter. She wasn't the only player that had been dealing with foul trouble, though, as both junior forward Alyssa Utsby and junior forward Anya Poole also found themselves with three fouls.
But that didn’t stop UNC from running the aggressive pressure defense, as Banghart knew the tactic was the only way for the team to cement the comeback.
“You can’t go down safe,” she said. “You’ve gotta go down swinging."
Todd-Williams embodied this message, pushing hard on both ends of the court. The team followed her lead, putting in a coordinated defensive effort to completely shut down the scoring ability of their opponents by holding the Cavaliers to just eight points in the fourth.
With two big ACC rivalry matches coming up against No. 11 N.C. State and No. 16 Duke, the Tar Heels will have an opportunity to secure quality wins and climb in the ACC standings. But as Thursday's performance demonstrated, for the team to get the job done, Banghart knows it will take a thorough effort throughout the entire contest.
“(It’s) too bad that we didn't play the fourth quarter four times,” Banghart said.
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