RALEIGH — It was a terrible weekend for basketball at NC State. Conversely, it’s been a great week for North Carolina’s women’s team.
The two extremes converged at Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday, where the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half to beat the seventh-ranked Wolfpack 64-51 to end State’s 21-game winning streak and hand the nation’s last unbeaten team — men or women — its first loss of the season.
Stephanie Watts scored 20 points and center Janelle Bailey added 16 points and 13 rebounds to lead coach Sylvia Hatchell’s team to its second big win in a span of seven days. The victory comes on the heels of an upset of then-No. 1 Notre Dame two games earlier.
“It’s been exciting for us,” Watts said of her team’s recent run. “The team is playing great basketball. We’ve just been really excited but we’re never satisfied. We want more. We want to keep it rolling.”
State (21-1, 8-1 ACC) has been on a roll since the start of the season, stringing together the best start in program history.
But even as it continued its winning ways, coach Wes Moore suggested that he feared a loss might be in the works because of the way his team’s offense has sputtered in recent games.
That lack of fluidity finally caught up with the Wolfpack during a second half in which it made just four of 23 field goal attempts, went 3 of 14 from beyond the 3-point arc and was limited to 19 points.
The frigid shooting performance was a painful reminder of a loss by State’s men’s team 24 hours earlier, in which the Wolfpack managed just 24 points for the entire game in an ugly loss to Virginia Tech.
“We’ve been a little stagnant,” said Moore, whose has continued to win despite losing three players to season-ending injuries. “I’ve been disappointed in practice the last week or so. It’s tough because you don’t have a lot of subs and depth in practice, so you’re tempted to pace yourself. But we’ve got to get back a little more urgency in practice.”
Despite an off-shooting performance by star guard Paris Kea, who went 1 of 9 on 3-pointers and took 23 shots to score her 17 points, UNC hung with the Wolfpack after a first half that featured nine lead changes and six ties.
Trailing by just one at 32-31 but having difficulty scoring from the perimeter, UNC changed its strategy in the second half by pounding the ball inside to Bailey. The 6-foot-4 sophomore helped her team to a 30-14 inside scoring advantage for the game, the first time all season that the Wolfpack was outscored in the paint.
While Bailey got her team going offensively both with her scoring and in helping to create space for Watts and Kea to operate, it was the Tar Heels’ defense that eventually created some separation midway through the third quarter.
Not only did State shoot poorly in the period, but it was also forced into six turnovers by the UNC defense.
The Tar Heels (14-9, 5-4) opened up a 10-point lead by the end of the third and never let their rival get any closer than nine the rest of the way. The final dagger came with 1:50 remaining when with the shot clock running down and the Wolfpack looking as if it might get the stop it needed, UNC’s Watts banked home a desperation 3-pointer to turn a 59-51 lead into a 12-point cushion.
“It felt like it was on line,” Watts said. “I guess the bank was open.”
State star Kiara Leslie led her team with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but didn’t score during the middle two quarters.
While the Tar Heels celebrated the final result with an emotional celebration on the field, it was met by the Wolfpack with a combination of disappointment for the unbeaten streak being over and pride for what it took to pull it off.
“I don’t feel like there was pressure,” said Erika Cassell, who had eight points and 12 rebounds. “Of course everyone was wondering how long the streak is going to go on. It’s just something for us to bounce back from.”