The format of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is that the top four seeds in each region get to host the first two rounds on their home court. For #5 seeds, it can be a bit of a raw deal since by definition they’re not far off the #4 seeds they would then have to beat in road game. As it happens, that was the exact scenario North Carolina had on their hands last night against Arizona.
One good way to ensure none of that is an issue is to play rock solid defense, build up a lead, and never let the crowd truly get to you. And that is the exact scenario UNC provided. After holding Arizona to just 28.8% shooting, the Tar Heels rode that to a 63-45 win over the Wildcats, clinching their first Sweet 16 appearance in several seasons.
In the first quarter, UNC got off to both a great but sloppy start. They led 14-9 after the first 10 minutes, which, especially on defense, was a perfect way to open up a massive game in a difficult environment. However, they also only shot in the 30% range and couldn’t covert on a couple fast break and/or layup opportunities. While opening up a lead on the Wildcats on their home floor was good, it felt like they should’ve been up even more.
However, the perfect response to that was exactly what UNC did when they came out for the second quarter. The Heels scored the first nine points of the second quarter, going on a 15-0 run across the end of the first and start of the second, as the Wildcats went on a scoring drought over 10 minutes. While they eventually ended that and cut into the deficit before the half, UNC kept answering.
As you would expect from the reigning national runners-up, Arizona came out ready to make a run in the second half and got within seven a couple times early in the third quarter. However, the Heels not only absorbed their punch, but punched back harder. Carolina ended the third quarter on a 15-2, which was capped of by Deja Kelly completing a three-point play after she was fouled on a buzzer beater. That took their lead out to 20 points, and really seemed to drain life out of a crowd that had been very fired up, even despite UNC leading for so much of the game.
Arizona made once last push in the fourth quarter, getting within 13 points. Stop me if you’ve heard this about a UNC second round game before, but the Heels were having some issues with the trap. However, like they had for every previous Arizona run, Carolina eventually settled down and built the lead back out. Carlie Littlefield’s steal, drawing of a foul, and knocking down of free throws with three minutes left settled things down and finally ended the chances of this game ending up like a certain game from Saturday. After that, the ensuing minutes ticked away, and UNC sealed their 18-point win.
It was a pretty big effort across the board from UNC’s starting five, but Kennedy Todd-Williams led the way, finishing with a game high 19 points, while she also grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out five assists. Alyssa Utsby finished with a double-double, going for 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Kelly finished with 15 points, and a big 9-10 performance from the free throw line.
As mentioned, defense played a massive part of the win, with the Wildcats shooting under 30%. All Pac-12 player, and Arizona’s leading scorer, Cate Reese was held to just six points, going 3-9 from the field and 0-5 from three.
From here, the Heels are actually headed back to the state of North Carolina for the Sweet 16, for which their region will be held in Greensboro. The opponent is not going to get any easier, as they’re set to take on the #1 seed South Carolina. The Gamecocks are the tournament’s #1 overall seed and have spent a large part of the season as the unanimous top ranked team in the country. UNC is going to have a very tough task on their hands, but they have pulled of a win in this scenario before.
No matter what happens in the game next Friday, the Heels are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015. It’s been a remarkable season for UNC in Courtney Banghart’s third year in Chapel Hill.