CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Led by Allisha Gray’s 22-point performance, the 11th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels held on to post a 79-77 win over the No. 21 Oklahoma State Cowgirls at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday.
Gray also finished with a well-rounded seven rebounds, three assists and five steals while teammates Stephanie Mavunga (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Xylina McDaniel (10 points, 10 rebounds) added double-doubles to earn the win.
For the Cowgirls, Roshunda Johnson scored a team-high 21 points including valuable points in the end while LaShawn Jones’ double-double finish (16 points, 13 rebounds) along with Brittany Atkins’ 15 points helped carry OSU’s offense throughout the game.
Playing in their second game against a ranked opponent in three days, following an 84-68 win over then-No. 23 UCLA, the Tar Heels’ first-ever meeting with Oklahoma State presented a formidable challenge.
“It was a great game,” Tar Heels head coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
“I thought it was two very good teams out there. It was a game of runs. We started out strong, but we knew they would come back. They’re a really, really good team. Good players and well coached.”
Starting out on a 10-0 run led by Gray, the Tar Heels (3-0) established the pace and distance between the two teams as Oklahoma State (2-1) was slow to react and struggled from the field – going scoreless for the first three minutes of the game.
“We were just a little overwhelmed because we weren’t communicating,” Jones said.
North Carolina dominated on the boards, particularly in getting valuable second-chance points throughout the opening 20 minutes and led 40-29 by halftime.
“Defensively, we just wanted to square up in the zone and the next person rotate out on their man,” Oklahoma State head coach Jim Littell said.
“We didn’t do a real good job of that. That’s why you have athletes like that, where they can attack the boards, it just comes back to that. We just kept telling our kids, ‘grind it out one possession at a time,’ and I think they did that.”
The Cowgirls then dominated play throughout the second half and outscored the Tar Heels 48-39.
OSU eventually caught up by outworking the Tar Heels and put together an 11-0 run that gave the visitors a 65-63 lead with 5:40 to play.
Gray and Mavunga continued to carry the load for North Carolina to retake and extend the lead, but fouls and relentless play at both ends of the court from Oklahoma State didn’t secure the win for North Carolina until the final seconds of the game counted down.
Atkins pulled OSU within two, trailing 74-72 with 2:49 to play, but Mavunga answered back to extend the margin back up to 76-72.
After the Cowgirls missed a shot on their possession, Mavunga was fouled, and missed the second of a one-and-one.
Gray won the rebound on the play, but couldn’t bury her three-point shot attempt and the drama heightened as OSU’s Brittany Martin (10 points, 4 rebounds) drove the lane at the other end and was fouled by Gray.
Martin scored on both free throw attempts and Carolina’s lead sat at three points – 77-74.
With 1:03 remaining, Mavunga was then called for an offensive foul while driving the lane and Oklahoma State got the ball back and quickly called a timeout.
Johnson eventually got the ball on the set play and dropped a three-pointer to tie the game 77-77 with 50.9 seconds to play.
Latifah Coleman brought the ball up the court and found Mavunga inside to score the layup that put North Carolina ahead by two with 34 seconds to go.
From that point on, the Tar Heels held on by applying their patented full-court pressure defense to eventually suffocate the Cowgirls’ ball movement and shot selection.
Faced with an aggressive press, OSU called a timeout with 11 seconds to play.
Following the inbounds and a missed shot attempt, a scramble for the ball eventually ensued at midcourt and along the scorer’s table sideline.
When play resumed, the Tar Heels had possession with 3.9 seconds to play and still clinging on to the two-point lead.
OSU quickly fouled Brittany Rountree (6 points, 3 assists) on the inbounds and she went to the foul line with 2.3 seconds to play.
Rountree missed, and OSU rebounded the ball and quickly called a timeout to set up for a final shot.
However, the Cowgirls couldn’t get possession of the long inbounds baseball pass farther than the half-court line.
As the ball was tipped in the air, Gray ended the game the same way she began it, with it in her possession, and secured the win for the Tar Heels.
“We learned a lot and sputtered some out there,” Hatchell concluded.
“It was a great game for us, and we learned a lot.”