CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – UNC guard Stephanie Watts said it as clearly and succinctly as it could be after the Tar Heels upset No. 1 Notre Dame 78-73 at Carmichael Arena on Sunday.
“We’re a better team than what our record shows,” Watts said following the Tar Heels’ third ACC win in its last four played.
“We didn’t come into this game scared. We didn’t come into this game nervous. We’re a good team. We’re a better team than what our record shows and we knew this was going to be a tough competitive game and we were gonna play it out to the end.”
Leading North Carolina (12-9, 3-4) to only its second win ever over Notre Dame (19-2, 6-1) in the teams’ nine meetings, redshirt senior guard Paris Kea’s 30 points, 10 assists, and three steals was the engine that drove the offense.
However, Watts’ defensive play, three blocks and three steals to go along with 19 points and five rebounds, was critical to keeping Notre Dame’s offense out of sync, scoring well below its ACC average of 84.7, and overall season average of 87.2 points per game.
Twenty Fighting Irish turnovers were converted into 21 points by the Tar Heels, and kept this one close with the teams deadlocked on 11 different occasions throughout.
Rushing into the postgame presser with local media barely ready for her, head coach Muffet McGraw started her comments quickly, not wanting to dwell on Notre Dame’s lackluster performance.
“It was disappointing to see our defense collapse like that – credit them. They did everything they needed to do to win,” McGraw began.
“We had some key turnovers. especially late in the game. We haven’t been in that situation enough, and we obviously need to practice it quite a bit more. We clearly weren’t playing our normal game. I don’t know – I mean it was just a lack of focus. And, they made some great plays. A lot of it was what they did.”
While Marina Mabrey (20 points, 5 rebounds), Jessica Shepard (19 points, 8 rebounds), and Brianna Turner (19 points, 6 rebounds) led Notre Dame’s offense, the trio also compiled 15 of the team’s turnovers.
Watts, Kea and Taylor Koenen, who claimed three steals as well, then took advantage of those opportunities throughout.
With the score even at 71 with 1:48 to play after Turner dropped an and-1 for Notre Dame, UNC 3-point specialist Leah Church dropped the eventual dagger deep into the hearts of the Irish faithful in attendance.
It was her only made shot on two field goal attempts in 16 minutes played, and the eventual game-winning shot set up by Kea.
The five-foot-eight-inch sophomore guard from Puryear, N.C. could sense something special would happen, slapping the floor as she set herself to defend the final 1:25 of play.
“The kid can shoot,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said of Church.
“If she’s open and misses a shot, that’s rare. So that’s why I just kept puttin’ her in there, especially when they went zone. There, at the end, it was a big three that she made for us. The kid – you just gotta love her. She gives our team a lot of spirit and energy out there.”
With ample time to even the score, trailing 76-71 following Kea’s final field goal of the game, Shepard’s quick layup made it a three-point game with 32 left on the clock.
Tar Heel hearts pounded a little heavier, of both excitement and anxiety.
A questionable offensive foul was called on Kea as she was pushed by Notre Dame’s Jordan Nixon into opposing guard Arike Ogunbowale.
That gave possession back to the Irish.
It set up for a prototypical top-dog finish to escape defeat.
But that just wasn’t to be on this day.
Notre Dame’s final turnover came off off Shepard’s hands as she overthrew a pass attempt to Mabrey and into their bench.
Kea then added a free throw to extend the margin to four points with 18.5 seconds left.
A missed three-point shot attempt from Ogunbowale and a critical final rebound by Watts wrestled the ball out of Nixon’s hands.
With the possession arrow pointing the Tar Heels’ way, the ball made it back into Kea’s hands to drop her final free throw.
It was the ‘wow’ moment Hatchell had talked to her team about earlier.
“All of them contributed,” Hatchell pointed out.
“They all just played really good team basketball. I’m really proud of these guys because without a doubt, they had a ‘wow’ moment today.”
“This (win) not only shows ourselves what we’re capable of, but that we’re able to play with anyone else,” Watts added.
“That (game) serves as a good reminder for us.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport