CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The 15th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels held off a tenacious and committed Liberty Lady Flames squad, earning a 71-65 victory in first-round play in the 2015 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament at Carmichael Arena on Saturday.
The game was touted as highlighting the fourth-seeded Tar Heels’ offensive attack, averaging 75 points per game, against the No. 13 seed Flames defense which ranked 13th nationally, holding teams to an average of 35-percent shooting.
“We’re happy to come out with the win,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
“They were very tough. Overall, I was proud of these kids for pulling it out.”
Allisha Gray (17 points, 4 rebounds), Latifah Coleman (15 points, 3 rebounds), and Stephanie Mavunga (12 points, 9 rebounds) led the Tar Heels offense.
A double-double performance from Big South MVP Ashley Rininger (19 points, 13 rebounds), along with Karly Buer’s 14 points and five rebounds, kept Liberty hanging around througout.
North Carolina shot 49 percent from the field, while Liberty stayed close, executing at a 35-percent conversion rate.
Even a dominating 52-35 rebounding performance, particularly off the offensive glass, couldn’t help the Lady Flames to overpower the Tar Heels who took advantage of key scoring runs to gain the advantage during the first half.
Match-up: North Carolina (25-8) and Liberty (26-7) met for the third time in the two teams’ all-time series with the Tar Heels now holding a 3-0 record.
North Carolina made its 26th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and owns a 46-24 record.
Liberty made its 16th appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 19 seasons and came short in claiming its first postseason win since 2005 when it reached the Sweet 16.
UNC – (28-57/4-9 3Ptr) – Allisha Gray (17 points, 4 rebounds), Latifah Coleman (15 points, 3 rebounds)
Liberty – (24-69/3-18 3Ptr) – Ashley Rininger (19 points, 13 rebounds), Karly Buer (14 points, 5 rebounds)
Halftime: UNC 39, Liberty 25
UNC – (16-31/2-5 3Ptr) – Latifah Coleman (9 points, 2 rebounds), Allisha Gray (8 points, 2 rebounds), Stephanie Mavunga (6 points, 6 rebounds)
Liberty – (8-32/0-7 3Ptr) – Karly Buer (9 points, 3 rebounds), Ashley Rininger (8 points, 6 rebounds)
What happened: Liberty set the tone early, creating a turnover and scoring the first basket of the game.
Coleman and Mavunga quickly answered for North Carolina to keep the high pace of the game’s start going.
It was evenly-contested, and Liberty managed to take an early 10-7 lead.
Gray and Washington spurred a quick 7-0 run for the North Carolina and took advantage of Liberty’s struggle to score, connecting on only 2-of-12 shots for a two-minute period.
A three from Washington followed up by a putback vaulted North Carolina ahead 16-12 at the 12-minute mark.
The sequence ignited the Tar Heels faithful in attendance and kept the energy high for the home side, while the visiting fans waited for their team to regain its form.
Unfortunately, it didn’t return.
At least not quickly enough, as foul troubles and turnovers allowed the Tar heels to continue to build on its advantage.
UNC led 23-12 with nine minutes remaining in the opening half.
The Lady Flames began to catch fire later in the half, but were still playing catch-up as Coleman scored three consecutive baskets and N’Dea Bryant (8 points, 5 rebounds) added another as North Carolina advanced its lead to 32-24 with three minutes remaining.
Jamie Cherry (3 points, 3 assists) then dropped an impressive three-pointer with four seconds remaining.
It was the only basket she made in the game.
Additional, separate runs of 16-2 and 7-0 put the Tar Heels firmly in control, leading 39-25 at halftime.
North Carolina continued to build on its lead early in the second half, scoring six straight points.
It’s probably the most motivation I’ve had,” Coleman said of making the most of her final Tournament experience with Hatchell on the sideline.
“It’s just survive and advance.”
Liberty eventually got its offense back in gear, and took advantage of a string of unforced North Carolina turnovers.
The Lady Flames cut their deficit to eight points, trailing 48-40 with 11:39 to play.
Rininger powered the resurgence and pulled Liberty closer with a layup in the paint as the Tar Heels’ scoring slump neared three minutes.
Troubles beyond the arc continued foor the Lady Flames, and made the difference in allowing North Carolina to hold an eight-point lead, 52-44, with eight minutes to play.
The missed attempts, coupled with the inability to penetrate more inside, bought time for the Tar Heels to reset their offense.
A three from Rountree ended the drought and a layup from Mavunga reestablished a 13-point lead.
“We really had to focus,” Mavunga said.
“We knew it was going to be a game of runs.”
Gray was called for her fourth foul, but Hatchel kept her on the floor.
As a result, the guard scored and subsequently assisted on a Bryant layup to put the Tar Heels ahead 61-50 with five minutes remaining.
Buer soon dropped a three for Liberty.
Consistency at the free throw line also hampered the Lady Flames, and denied them making the gains they needed to catch up to North Carolina.
Emily Frazier’s (7 points, 8 rebounds) jumper on the inbounds pulled Liberty to within seven, cutting the Tar Heels lead to 63-56 with 2:17 to play.
With both teams in foul trouble, baskets inside came hard to come by.
Coleman drove to the basket for a layup after a Liberty three-pointer made it a six-point game.
Time had finally run out on the Lady Flames as Rountree went to the line with 25.2 seconds remaining to push the lead back up to nine points.
“We showed character and determination in the second half,” Liberty coach Carey Green said.
Valiant perimeter shot attempts from Liberty weren’t enough as the Tar Heels held on long enough to preserve the win.
Up next: North Carolina 27-6 will play the winner of No. 5 Ohio State and No. 12 James Madison on Monday.
Liberty ends its season with a 25-8 overall record.