The 100th meeting between the two Triangle-area teams started out as a frustrating display of missed shots and turnovers, but eventually turned out to be a boisterous and energetic, final-seconds affair.
Both teams had three double-digit scorers apiece and one each with a double-double, but they all struggled from the field during the first 20 minutes.
Danielle Butts (12 points, 2 rebounds) and Stephanie Mavunga (11 points, 8 rebounds) supported Allisha Gray’s efforts (10 points, 12 rebounds) for the Tar Heels, while the Wolfpack’s Len’Nique Brown (21 points, 6 rebounds) and Jennifer Mathurin complimented Dominique Wilson’s (15 points, 10 rebounds) finish.
In the end, it was the type of ending you would expect between area Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) rivals, and for the Tar Heels, added to their current winning streak over the Wolfpack – now sitting at eight consecutive games.
“Tough loss,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said.
“We needed to get a good signature win, and didn’t quite finish it off.”
Leading 26-21 at halftime and holding onto a 38-36 lead with 13 minutes to play, the Wolfpack faltered and offered opportunities for the Tar Heels to come back.
The loss dropped them to 12-7 overall, and 3-3 in the ACC.
It was North Carolina’s senior leadership group – Butts along with Brittany Rountree (9 points, 3 assists) and Latifah Coleman (8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) – who head coach Sylvia Hatchell credited with earning the critical road win that moved their record to 17-3 overall, and 4-2 in the league.
“Always hard-fought games over here,” Hatchell said.
“We started out and I was just wonderin’ when we were gonna’ make a basket. I thought we was gettin’ a lot of good shots, but they just weren’t goin’ in. We kept battlin’ hard and so I was sort of happy that we were only down by five at halftime.”
Wilson opened the scoring for the Wolfpack with a three-pointer 33 seconds after the opening tip.
The Tar Heels struggled to convert on five shot attempts in close with three rebounds, a miss and a blocked shot all coming in the same sequence.
Both teams committed turnovers while trying to establish their tempo and spacing.
Carlee Shuhmacher (4 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks) got to the line and extended N.C. State’s early lead to 5-0.
Mavunga finally got North Carolina on the board with a turnaround jumper at 16:28.
It was those long stretches of few successful baskets being made, and much physical play to earn and maintain ball control off the boards, that made this one interesting.
“It was a rival game, so we were both anxious and the intensity was going,” Brown said.
“We had to calm down and finally we did.”
Gray struggled early, missing her first three shot attempts, all from beyond the arc, while Mavunga went 1-of-4 during the first five minutes of play.
To say both teams struggled would be an understatement – they both combined for an abysmal 2-of-27 shooting during the first eight minutes of play.
North Carolina went scoreless for four-and-a-half minutes while N.C. State went without a basket for just under six minutes.
Jamie Cherry (3 points, 1 rebound) tied it at five points apiece at 11:51, before Wilson quickly put the Wolfpack ahead again, 7-5.
The intermittent, plodding offensive play on both sides continued on.
Mathurin made it a five-point game again, draining a three at 10:22.
Another three from Ashley Williams, her first and only basket of the game, extended the Wolfpack advantage to 13-5.
Wilson and Brown added a few more baskets, and the Tar Heels all of a sudden found themselves trailing by 13 points.
Gray finally connected on her first shots of the game – a three and a layup – and slowed the home side’s momentum.
N’Dea Bryant posted four quick points, her contribution on the night, to help North Carolina stay close, trailing 24-16 with 3:22 to play until the break.
A shot clock violation and a foul put Gray at the line where she drained both free throws.
A three from Jessica Washington (6 points, 3 rebounds) cut the N.C. State lead down to five points, 26-21.
The Wolfpack carried that lead into the halftime break, and knew that it would have to maintain its consistency during a game in which that came at a premium.
Anything less eventually become costly.
For North Carolina, it was the worst opening half it had played to date – posting its lowest number of points (21) and scoring percentage (21 percent) since its game against then fifth-ranked Stanford back on Nov. 28.
They eventually won that contest 70-54, and would have to dig deep to get past N.C. State on this night as well.
Tar Heels’ energy player Butts’ four points pulled North Carolina to within three, 28-25 early in the second half.
Wilson posted a three and two free throws and the Wolfpack held another double-digit lead, 35-25, with 16 minutes to play.
North Carolina’s defense then slowed N.C. State down and converted numerous second-chance opportunities into made baskets.
The Tar Heels dominated the Wolfpack in rebounding, finishing with a 51-35 margin that included picking up 20 offensive rebounds and scoring 14 points on missed shot follow-ups.
Four quick points from a Butts layup and a Mavunga steal on an inbounds pass, and suddenly the N.C. State lead was cut down to six points.
As both teams traded baskets and with the Wolfpack trying to hang on, North Carolina eventually went on a 14-3 run and assumed its first lead, 39-38, on a Washington 3-pointer at the 12:35 mark.
N.C. State twice regained the advantage, but the tide had flowed in North Carolina’s favor and wouldn’t ebb for too long.
Brown kept the Wolfpack ahead 45-41 three minutes later as the Tar Heels began to struggle from the field again.
However, they continued to put in productive work from the free throw line.
With Mavunga sitting on the bench with four fouls and Gray playing cautiously with three, N.C. State made cuts through the paint and scored with a Mathurin layup.
Hillary Summers (4 points, 5 rebounds) eventually pulled UNC to within two, trailing 49-47 with six minutes to play.
A minute later, with the Wolfpack still holding onto its slim lead, Gray hit a three and pulled Carolina to within one.
Following that shot, Gray took a charge and Shuhmacher fouled out with 4:26 to play.
At that point, a bright light shone on the Wolfpack’s foul situation, leaving Mathurin with two fouls and Nelson with four, to contend with Mavunga inside.
Butts saw the opening and drove baseline to give the Tar Heels the lead, 52-51, but Brown hit a three following a timeout.
Two successful free throws from Mavunga tied it up at 54-all with 3:20 to play.
Mavunga then pushed Carolina ahead by two and then four, with successive baskets, and the Tar Heels didn’t relinquish their lead for the remainder of the game.
It eventually turned into a free-throw contest and the eventual star turned out to be Rountree, who finished 0-for-5 from the field, but 9-for-10 from the charity stripe.
She scored eight straight free throws during the final 24 seconds of the game.
Trailing by five, Nelson went to the line to pull State closer – 59-56 with 35.2 seconds to play.
Rountree went to work, getting fouled on each subsequent inbounds play.
All was still not yet lost for the Wolfpack as Mathurin hit a surprise three with 13.9 seconds left, and cut the Tar Heels lead back down to two, 61-59.
Nelson quickly fouled Rountree and the senior guard went to the line once more to drop another two shots.
It was a two-possession game with 12.3 seconds to go.
A baseline-to-baseline drive by Brown was successful as she made the layup and was fouled in the process, pulling the Wolfpack to within two once more.
Brown hit the free throw and the press was on again, causing Gray to call a timeout on the ensuing Tar Heels inbounds with 7.5 on the clock.
The process continued.
Rountree was fouled and went to the line again to drop both shots once more.
UNC led 65-62 with 6.9 seconds to play and the chess match continued.
Rountree fouled Brown.
Brown missed the first and made the second – another two-point differential still in UNC’s favor.
Rountree went to the line again with 3.6 seconds remaining and made both to finally put the game out of reach and finalize the score at 67-63.
Brown launched an attempt from the N.C. State half of center, but missed the basket.
It was her last shot at North Carolina, a team that she still hadn’t posted a victory against.
“It hurts to lose again to UNC,” Brown said.
“But, we just got to take the things that we did wrong and learn from them, and the things that we did right and keep it rollin’.”
Despite the loss, the Wolfpack senior appreciated the experience that the game brought with it one more time this season.
“It was a slow start because of the rivalry (between the two teams),” she concluded.
“I think it’s a fun game to play every time.”