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'You have to play better': UNC women's basketball falls to UConn in its third straight ranked loss

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UNC women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart stands on the sideline during the women's basketball game against UConn at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. UNC fell 76-64 to the Huskies.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Indya Nivar slammed the ball into the ground.

Paige Bueckers had just drawn an offensive foul, hit the hardwood and roared. The play was sloppy. Ugly, even. A sequence that began with a Nivar defensive rebound turned into a crucial charge call with six minutes remaining.

A spurt of energy, a sparkle of hope and then nothing. 

It’s a trend UNC is far too familiar with. The latest case? The No. 24 Tar Heels’ 76-64 loss to No. 17 UConn in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena, capping off a trio of defeats in ranked matchups this season. In each game, North Carolina has contended but has yet to pull off a signature non-conference win.

First, it was a loss to Kansas State. Head coach Courtney Banghart chalked that one up to cold temperatures: “I’m not joking when I say I had hand warmers in my pockets.” Then, in a loss to top-ranked South Carolina, Maria Gakdeng’s foul trouble limited UNC’s rotation in the post.

And on Sunday — not even two months removed from the 2023 ACC Tipoff at which Banghart reveled in UNC’s new level of depth — the head coach lamented to the media about the difficulties of beating “another good team with five players.”

“It just requires too much energy and whatnot," Banghart said. "We were slow to get open. We were a little bit lackadaisical on the ball. There’s a mental fatigue in a game like this.”

The mental fatigue, arguably, was early-onset. In the first quarter, UNC committed eight of its eventual 19 turnovers on the game, and UConn jumped out to a 19-10 lead. 

The Tar Heels needed to settle down. Banghart said it herself, speaking to ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the opening frame.

UNC adjusted, outscoring UConn 26-17 in the second quarter. And then in the third quarter, coming off of a halftime rest, North Carolina turned the ball over three times — two of which were off of poor passes by Deja Kelly and Lexi Donarski — and Bueckers scooped in two layups en route to an 11-point Huskies run.

“We knew that we were coming into this game with a kind of short roster,” Kelly said. “But I think that we still — as an experienced guard and with the other experienced guards — could have handled it better.”

As UNC attempted to claw back late in the game, UConn took advantage of its lead to slow down the tempo to a grueling, almost mocking, pace. The Huskies played keep away — passing the ball around the perimeter to find a wide-open Nika Mühl, who drained a dagger three over the outstretched arms of Gakdeng.

UNC picked up full-court. Aaliyah Edwards responded with a jumper. North Carolina used its zone in an attempt to change up the tempo. UConn was unfazed.

When the Tar Heels tried to play bully ball in the post — Gakdeng said this was a focus for UNC given the Huskies' lack of depth at center — they were blocked six times.

While North Carolina's shooting woes took a back seat for one game, other issues cropped up. Turnovers, missed layups and — in Kelly's words — toughness.

"I think in those games specifically, we either played really well on the defensive end or really well on the offensive end," Kelly said of UNC's three ranked losses. "We just can’t win games like that. I think this game was a little bit of both, but it just wasn’t as consistent."

Simply put, depth and fatigue played a factor in North Carolina’s latest loss to a top opponent. But as Banghart put it, it shouldn’t be another excuse.

“When you only have a few scholarship players available, you have to play better,” Banghart said. “You have to play better because I can’t get you a rest. You’re going to have to play well tired. You’re going to have to play well through foul trouble. That’s just the way the cards were dealt.”

@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.