R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
RALEIGH, N.C. — Coach Sylvia Hatchell kept saying that her North Carolina team was better than its record.
After four consecutive victories, including two against top-10 teams, her Tar Heels are making a persuasive argument.
Against N.C. State, which came into Sunday’s game as the only undefeated men’s or women’s team, UNC (15-9, 5-4 ACC) showed its mettle in a convincing 64-51 victory to end a four-game losing streak against the Wolfpack (21-1, 8-1).
Hatchell has been trying to convince her team all year about how good they are.
“I kept telling [them], you guys just have to understand. I’ve been doing this 44 years. Y’all are good,” Hatchell said.
“We just got to get over the hump a little bit and we’ve got to put a few things together and I kept saying, ‘there’s another level, probably two levels that you guys can reach.’ If we’re going to get there, ya’ll just hang in there with me. Our schedule has been brutal.”
As it was recently, as well, as UNC faced then-No. 1 Notre Dame the previous Sunday and then No. 7 N.C. State.
The difference lately is that the Tar Heels are coming out with victories.
“I feel like our record doesn’t show how good we are,” said UNC center Janelle Bailey, who scored 16 points.
“I thought we just needed a little time to correct things. I knew this team would come together. I feel like everybody knows how good we are.”
Stephanie Watts, who led UNC with 20 points, banked in a 3-pointer with 1:49 left after the Wolfpack had cut the lead to eight and was threatening to make a run.
“It felt like it was on line, but I guess the bank was open,” Watts said.
That bucket, oddly enough, was a byproduct of Carolina aggressively driving toward the bucket.
State held Paris Kea to 1 of 9 from 3-point range by tightly guarding her all game.
The Tar Heels took advantage of that when Kea drove on the play.
“She drove, they stopped her, and found me,” Watts said.
“I think we know we have a great team. We know we’re able to do great things if we just stick with it and stay together, so I think that’s what we’ve been doing and now it’s just coming together for us.”
In the previous eight ACC games, the Wolfpack trailed for only 32 minutes and 46 seconds of a possible 325.
N.C. State trailed for 21:06 against UNC, unable to respond against its best challenge of the year.
The Wolfpack went scoreless for the last five minutes of the third quarter and could never get a rally after going as UNC went up by 13 with 4:38 left.
“At the start of the second half, Carolina came out and really attacked the bucket, got to the foul line, got some easy points in transition and turned the momentum around,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said.
“We’ve got to do a better job of that. I’ve got to do a better job of helping us be more aggressive offensively in attacking mode.”
Pushing the ball inside, particularly to center Janelle Bailey, was the difference for UNC since it had a season-low four 3-pointers.
This came after UNC collected double-digit 3s in their last two games.
“It was just what they gave us,” Hatchell said.
“We had that with some penetration. They were on us. We were 1 for 9 I think at halftime, so the second half we just tried to go inside more and more.”
Bailey scored seven points early in the first quarter to set the tone.
The Wolfpack seemed helpless to stop Bailey inside unless she was double-teamed.
“I felt good about it when I had single coverage,” said Bailey, who pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds.
“When I have single coverage, that’s better for me. And when they double-team me, I find our teammates.”
The anticipated matchup of Kea and N.C. State’s Kiara Leslie was a little uneven, although both scored 17 points.
Both grew up cheering for, and eventually transferring to, their respective schools.
Kea, the all-time leading scorer at Greensboro Page, transferred from Vanderbilt after her freshman year and Leslie, who is from Holly Springs, is a graduate transfer after playing three seasons at Maryland.
Kea missed three non-conference games with a right foot injury that had hampered her until the last few games.
She had trouble finding the range early but scored 13 of her points in the second half.
“I felt like I had to play through some of the fouls,” said Kea, who finished with three fouls.
“It felt like I wasn’t getting some of the calls. I just had to tough it out and I found my teammates when I drove.”
Leslie scored 10 first-quarter points but was scoreless in the middle two quarters before netting seven in the final period.
“We were just trying keep her from getting that drive with the right hand, even though she can go both ways,” Hatchell said.
“And be close enough where we can contest the outside shot and not let her get a really good look.”
Aislinn Konig provided much of the rest of State’s offense with three of its eight 3-pointers and 13 points.
Moore bemoaned that his team had been stagnant in practices and games of late.
Playing only seven players because of key injuries didn’t help, particularly with the Tar Heels pushing the tempo.
“We’ve got to get a little more urgency in practice,” he said.
“We’ve got to figure out how to rotate these players, especially on the perimeter.”
Moore said that he didn’t think there was pressure because of the 21-game win streak and said he never talked about it.
“I think we have been standing around a little bit,” he said.
“We’ve got to get back to defending and rebounding.”
UNC outrebounded State 42-40 and got off 11 more shots.
“We didn’t get easy points off of offensive rebounds, so we’re really having to work for everything we get,” said Moore, whose team was held to a season-low point total.
The previous low was in a 54-51 win over Clemson on Jan. 24.
Watts said that the win over State was comparable to the Notre Dame win.
“It’s very exciting for us,” she said.
“The team is playing great basketball. I wouldn’t want to be out here with any other group. We’ve just been really excited but never satisfied. We want more and to keep it rolling.”
And, of course, getting the Tar Heels’ record so that it is closer to how good they think they are.
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