CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It was a gutsy and energetic performance that the North Carolina Tar Heels and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets put on at Carmichael Arena on Thursday.
With two seconds remaining, Tar Heels guard Jamie Cherry launched a 3-point attempt well beyond the arc, eight feet or so back, that hit nothing but net and gave UNC a dramatic 89-88 win over the Yellow Jackets.
Yes, it was only North Carolina’s third ACC win over a Georgia Tech squad that had only three league wins and an identical 14-12 overall record, but the high quality of play exhibited by both squads as the postseason tournament approaches could provide for more interesting results moving forward.
“We needed this,” UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
“Our team chemistry is tremendous. Our practices are good, they’re workin’ hard.”
Highlights: UNC 89, Georgia Tech 88 – ACC Digital Network (TheACC.com)
Led by Cherry’s 6-of-9 shooting from the perimeter, part of a 26-point finish, North Carolina fired away from everywhere except the bench and seats, and connected on 52 percent of its 27 3-point attempts.
Paris Kea led all scorers with 27 points and nine rebounds, and converted two triples herself while Taylor Koenen (17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) and Stephanie Watts (11 points, 5 rebounds 3 assists) each scored three 3s apiece.
Playing its fourth straight game without guard Destinee Walker, out with a knee injury and one of the Tar Heels’ leading scorers, Kea, Cherry, Watts, and Koenen carried the load, and kept pace with Georgia Tech.
Freshman Francesca Pan (18 points, 3 rebounds) and a double-double output from Zaire O’Neal (16 points, 10 rebounds) led the Yellow Jackets offense that also included double-digit finishes from Antonia Peresson (13 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists) and Imani Tillford (12 points, 4 assists, 5 steals).
North Carolina was outmatched in length and size, but utilized its talent and tenacious work ethic to pull this one off.
Georgia Tech outrebounded UNC by a 40-24 margin, scoring 20 points off rebounds while finishing with 38 points in the paint.
However, the Yellow Jackets had to work to score points with 70 total shot attempts, compared to North Carolina’s slightly more efficient 48-percent shooting finish.
“We always play great games against Georgia Tech because they’re so physical,” Hatchell pointed out.
“Tonight was no exception. I was proud of our kids for making adjustments.”
Though trailing by 16 points, 29-13, late in the first quarter, the Tar Heels kept pace by showing strength under their basket with Koenen and Alyssa Okoene (5 points, 4 rebounds) posting up with O’Neal throughout.
With a well-round offensive output during the second, UNC cut the deficit down and trailed 46-42 at halftime.
The final 20 minutes of play highlighted both teams alternating scoring runs and trading the lead six different times.
It looked as though Georgia Tech had the game in hand, leading 86-83 with 53 seconds remaining.
Koenen’s 3-pointer 12 seconds later tied it one last time.
Following a free throw from Tillford, and combined with two straight missed shot attempts to pull ahead from Cherry, including a wide-open jumper that hit the iron, the Yellow Jackets once again thought they would walk away as the victors.
“I feel like I should have hit that 15-footer because I was wide open,” Cherry said.
“My teammates told me to not hold my head and I’ll get it back.”
A steal at halfcourt by Kea gave the 1,909 in attendance hope that the Tar Heels would get an easy score, but Tilford picked the ball back away near the end line.
Controversy arose from the UNC bench and from the crowd as ball possession on the end line was questioned, but not reviewed by the officials.
Georgia Tech managed to add another free throw to its total and led 88-86 with six seconds remaining.
Even amongst the players, the talk back and forth on whether the game was over was intensifying.
“They were talkin’ a lot of junk out there to us,” Cherry said.
“Stephanie knows I take that personally. She knows how I get when people talk junk to me…The girl (Georgia Tech player) had told us the game was over and I looked at her and I said, ‘Oh no, y’all are toast’.”
Cherry’s words indeed rang true.
Hatchell called a timeout and there was no doubt who would get the ball.
“When the opportunity presented itself, I told Coach Hatchell to give me the ball and I would make it this time,” Cherry said.
“Jamie comes to me and says, ‘I want the ball’, Hatchell added.
“That’s what I like – for players to have that kind of confidence and she said, ‘Give me the ball’…We were gonna go for the win, not the tie.”
With the ‘rock’ in her hands, Cherry waited and then launched the final shot-attempt of the game.
The ball fell through the mesh cleanly.
Cherry added to her legacy of scoring clutch baskets at the end of the game, similar to her long-range shot making in ACC Tournament play.
“There’s a reason why I call her ‘Cherry Bomb’,” Hatchell said.
“I’ve been doin’ that since she was a freshman because she’s made some big shots in some big games like that…I wasn’t surprised one bit (by her shot).”
Notes: Injuries have played a factor in the Tar Heels’ recent struggles sandwiched between wins over No. 15 N.C. State and Georgia Tech. Walker’s knee injury doesn’t seem to have Hatchell hopeful to see her on the court anytime soon. Watts is also injured, playing with a bruised knee. According to Hatchell, her 28 minutes against Georgia Tech were carefully allotted per quarter, according to doctor’s orders and what the situation in the game dictated.