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It’s about time for a Paris Kea appreciation post

The UNC women’s basketball team had a historic week thanks in large part to their senior leader

NCAA Womens Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure how we didn’t get an article up about this, but you may have caught the news that Sylvia Hatchell and the UNC women’s basketball team upset the then-#1 and defending national champions Notre Dame Fighting Irish last Sunday by a score of 78-73. It was a landmark win for a program that has struggled the past few years, and one for the record books as well: This was only the program’s 3rd win against a #1-ranked team, and the first against a team that wasn’t from Duke. After a bunch of close games against good teams, it was gratifying to see one go the Heels’ way, and even better that it was against Notre Dame. Despite a mediocre record (13-9, 4-4 ACC), UNC showed in this game that it’s capable of hanging with the best.

They then, fortunately, refused to let the win be their Super Bowl, following it up with a gritty win over Georgia Tech on Thursday, in an offensive explosion that ended 91-90. Tech isn’t quite the caliber of opponent that Notre Dame is, but we know all too well how easy it is for a team to come out flat a game after punching up and winning. The Heels are now on a 3-game win streak and have some life in the ACC, and at the center of it all is senior point guard Paris Kea.

Kea has been a star for the Heels for the last three years, since she transferred from Vanderbilt. In her sophomore and junior years, averaging 18 points and 4.4 assists per game. Both years, she led the team in both categories. Her junior year was particularly special, as she scored 19 points a game and was top-5 in the ACC in scoring (19.1 points per game), assists (4.8 per game), three-point percentage (40.5%), and steals (2.1 per game), earning herself a first-team All-ACC selection. She was also the only player in the ACC to put up a 30-point, 10-assist game. But even beyond the stats, Kea proved herself to be a big-time player who showed up at the biggest moments. She scored a career-high 36 points to help her team pull off an upset of Duke. In the team’s two ACC Tournament games, she scored 55 points. She has the ability to score at all three levels, and when she gets going, as she so frequently does when her team needs her, she looks unguardable.

This year has been a bit of a statistical slump for Kea compared to her last two. Her scoring is down to just over 16 points per game and, having moved off the ball some for first-year transfer Shayla Bennett, has handed out a still-solid 3.6 assists per game. She is second on the team in both categories. Her shooting is also a little less prolific than it was last year, hovering just under 33%. It must have been frustrating to be having a setback like this, even a minor one, in her last year. But when the going got tough, Kea got going, and in the 8 games of conference play so far, she’s been stellar: she’s scored 19.9 points and handed out 3.8 assists per game while shooting 52.3% from the floor and 40.5% from three. And all this, predictably, peaked against one of the best opponents she’s played in her career. Against Notre Dame, Kea simply exploded. She shot 11/17 (5/8 from three) for 30 points, dished out 10 assists, and recorded 3 steals and 3 rebounds to boot. As Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said, “We had no answer for her. Just couldn’t guard her from anywhere -- couldn’t contain her, couldn’t guard her off the 3-point line.” At the end of the game, when Notre Dame was trying to mount a late comeback, it was Kea finding teammates for clutch threes, and then it was Kea at the free throw line icing the game away for the Heels.

She was big-time again in the game against Georgia Tech, and UNC needed every bit of her 29 points (on 9/16 shooting) and 6 assists to pull out the win after the emotional high that was the Notre Dame game. It is simply remarkable how consistently she is able to give UNC what it needs.

Kea is not the only notable player for UNC’s women. Janelle Bailey was last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year and is leading the team in scoring this year, having added the occasional three-pointer to her interior dominance on offense. Stephanie Watts and Leah Church have been sharpshooters. Taylor Koenen is a valuable role player. But when push comes to shove, it is clearly Kea who gets everything going for the Heels, and when she does, it’s a joy to watch. The numbers speak for themselves, and if you learn who big-time players are by how they perform in big-time games, then nobody is bigger-time than Paris Kea.

She’ll need to keep this string of incredible play going when UNC travels to Raleigh tomorrow to take on the as-of-now undefeated #7 N.C. State Wolfpack. But given her track record, it’ll be almost surprising if she doesn’t.