Top-ranked Gamecocks rally past UNC women

South Carolina won 65-58 in the ACC/SEC Challenge

South Carolina's Te-Hina Paopao drives against UNC's Kayla McPherson during the Gamecocks’ win Thursday in Chapel Hill. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Top-ranked South Carolina’s romping, high-scoring offense never showed up at No. 24 UNC.

Dawn Staley was OK with that, too, considering her Gamecocks hit the big shots at key moments and locked down defensively.

Bree Hall scored 15 points and South Carolina rallied from 11 down in the second quarter to push past UNC 65-58 in Thursday night’s ACC/SEC Challenge.

“We just had to fight and claw our way back,” said Staley, who has coached the Gamecocks to two NCAA titles. “I love seeing that from our team, no matter how ugly it was. They have fight. They compete.”

Te-Hina Paopao added 14 points for the Gamecocks (6-0), who ended up facing their toughest challenge in an early season slate of high-scoring blowouts — including against two ranked teams. South Carolina came in ranked second nationally in scoring offense at 100.4 points and leading the country with an average victory margin of 51.6 points.

But the Gamecocks ended up in a fight to the final seconds with the Tar Heels (5-3), who got off to a quick start and then stayed within reach even after South Carolina pushed ahead midway through the third.

“We didn’t really start the game as we wanted, but we came out the second half the way we wanted,” Paopao said.

Paopao hit three second-half 3-pointers, while Hall added a huge one from the left wing with 2:08 left that pushed the Gamecocks to their biggest lead at 60-52. South Carolina also got four straight free throws from Chloe Kitts and Ashlyn Watkins in the final 25 seconds to stay in control.

That would ultimately help them hang on despite shooting a season-low 39% and battling early turnover problems.

Deja Kelly scored 20 points for the Tar Heels. Alyssa Ustby added 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“We’re not good enough yet individually or collectively,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “But we’re made of the right stuff.”

The Tar Heels were coming off consecutive losses to No. 14 Kansas State and Florida Gulf Coast in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida. They did plenty to give themselves a chance at the upset, notably by controlling the boards (45-39) behind Ustby and Maria Gakdeng (10 rebounds). Still, they couldn’t find another shot-maker behind Kelly and Ustby in falling to 3-28 against top-ranked teams in the AP Top 25.

UNC hosts UNC Greensboro on Wednesday.