CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The 18th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels topped the 15th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 75-62 in the two teams’ Big Ten/ACC Challenge match-up at Carmichael Arena on Wednesday.
Sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel finished with a career-tying high of 25 points while freshmen Allisha Gray (14 points, 2 assists, 4 steals) and Diamond DeShields (11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists) supported the Tar Heels offensive effort with double-digit finishes against the Big Ten Conference’s preseason favorite.
Although Tar Heels head coach Sylvia Hatchell is not coaching her team on a daily basis while undergoing treatment for Leukemia, her intermittent and somewhat regular involvement with the team is impactful.
Hatchell not only had a talk with McDaniel the day before to refocus her energy on controlling her temper when playing, but she also attended a pregame meal to give the team a pep talk on ‘protecting’ their home court.
It seems the message got through to the Tar Heels who finished the game shooting 49 percent while sharing the basketball effectively and finishing with 17 team assists.
“Thank you Coach Hatchell, you had a major part in this win in many ways,” Calder said.
“We did a lot of good things tonight. We got down early. We did not panic. They took some open shots early, but some tough shots early that they made. In the end, we thought we could wear them down and we held them below 40 percent shooting…That’s our goal to hold teams below 40 percent shooting each game.”
While the Cornhuskers shot 50 percent (6-12) beyond the arc during the first half, they were shut out for the rest of the game from that range while the Tar Heels’ defensive play forced 21 turnovers and created 13 steals and transition opportunities.
There were only two lead changes in the game and McDaniel was responsible for both of them as she scored the game’s first points 20 seconds into it, but the visiting Cornhuskers, led by Jordan Hooper (18 points, 9 rebounds), quickly took control of the game with an early 8-2 lead.
It took another 13 minutes for North Carolina to battle and stay close to Nebraska before eventually regaining the lead at the 6:55 mark when McDaniel finished one of many transition layups she would get in the game.
Leading 24-23, the Tar Heels built up the margin between themselves and the Cornhuskers to 10 points, leading 40-30 at halftime.
To begin the second half, Nebraska got off to another quick start outscoring North Carolina 8-4 and trailing by six before Gray started the Tar Heels on a 10-2 run that pushed the Tar Heels lead up to 14 points, leading 52-38, with 14 minutes remaining in the game.
“”Well at first, my offensive game wasn’t going well so I was like I’ll just go to my other aspect of my game which is defense,” Gray said.
“Then my defense started coming along, and that’s when I started adding fuel to the fire on offense.”
From that point until the final buzzer sounded, Gray along with four other Tar Heels – Stephanie Mavunga (8 points, 11 rebounds), Jessica Washinton (7 points, 2 assists), Brittany Rountree (6 points, 1 assist), and N’Dea Bryant (2 points, 3 rebounds) – contributed to the team’s play at both ends of the floor to contain a worn-down Cornhuskers squad.
“So far this season, a lot of our players have had tremendous games, so it’s really hard to try to scout and stop one particular player on the team,” McDaniel said of North Carolina’s depth.
“It just opens everything up for everyone else. Everybody is going to get their shots off because they (opponents) want to focus on one player, but they can’t because all of us can produce – the bench, everybody.”