SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL UNC plays its final pre-Christmas home game in women’s basketball today, and it’s supposed to be the Tar Heels’ final regular-season game in this building this season.
Renovated Carmichael Auditorium is supposed to be ready for the Dec. 29 game against Kennesaw State. We’ll see.
Today’s opponent is Gardner-Webb, which gets a real opportunity today as the Runnin’ Bulldogs are off to the fastest start in school history. It’s the first meeting between the teams.
GWU, which was in the Triangle earlier for a 66-55 win over N.C. Central back on Nov. 22, has won a school-record eight straight games for an 8-1 start and received votes in the last coaches’ poll.
UNC is No. 11. If Gardner-Webb, which has five players averaging in double figures, can accomplish an upset today that will probably be noted on the cover of next season’s media guide. And the visitors give a good account of themselves before falling 81-65.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs are serious when they hit the floor, taking a 12-11 lead in a sequence that includes six ties and five lead changes.
But the Tar Heels respond with an 11-0 run, including the layup from Italee Lucas (pictured) that puts them ahead to stay at 11:29 and a 3-pointer from Lucas that ends the spree at 10:03.
UNC leads 35-24 at halftime.
But the Bulldogs don’t quit. They trail only 53-47 following a layup from Northern Durham alumna Margaret Roundtree with 10:37 to go.
The Tar Heels respond with the next nine points – four from Lucas and five from Cetera DeGraffenreid – and stretch their lead to 73-52 with 5:08 left when Tierra Ruffin-Pratt gets a layup on a behind-the-back pass from Lucas.
DeGraffenreid finishes with 19 points and eight rebounds while Lucas adds 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Dominique Hudson has 17 points in GWU’s respectable effort, while Courtney Epps adds 16 before fouling out with 2:22 to go. Roundtree adds 12 and 6-6 center Sandra Vaitkute 10.
The stats aren’t all that lopsided. UNC shoots 41.2 percent to GWU’s 32.8, wins the rebound battle 47-44 and commits 24 turnovers to the Bulldogs’ 27.
Gardner-Webb lights it up from the free-throw line, knocking down 21 for 23. DeGraffenreid is nine for nine.
They said it …
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell: “(The junior guards are) our leaders, and they’ve been playing well. I started two freshmen (center Waltiea Rolle and wing Tierra Ruffin-Pratt), a sophomore (forward Chay Shegog) and two juniors and they’re all getting some experience, which is good. We’ll narrow down the playing time as it goes along. We’ve just got to keep getting better, and we’ve got to be aggressive without fouling.
“Gardner-Webb is good team – physical, too. We had 109 possessions, but I don’t like 24 turnovers. Hopefully we’ll start making more shots, settle down and make better decisions. This group is so young, we just have to focus a little bit and talk about what we need to do.”
Gardner-Webb coach Rick Reeves: “My biggest fear was we were going to come out and look at those jerseys and get afraid, and I think that’s what happened to us. I told them at halftime, ‘When do we turn the ball over 20 times?’ And we turned the ball over 20 times in the first half. But again I’ve got to give Carolina credit. They’re a very good team and forced some of those.
“The Big South is more of a finesse league, a good shooting league, and the ACC is more of a physical league. We learned a lot. I wanted to schedule them right before we got in conference play. They’re so much better than anybody in our league. It’s going to do nothing but help us get better.”
Lucas: “I’m definitely trying to get more assists and rebounds. That’s a pretty big focus. Definitely with our younger post players, when they get used to when the ball is coming, all our assists will definitely go up.”
What does it all mean?
That UNC can hold off an inspired low-major team that’s on a roll, while Gardner-Webb may be good enough to win the Big South this season.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Ruffin-Pratt’s layup on the behind-the-back assist from Lucas that made it 73-52.
UNC leads 1-0.
UNC: Won 3.
GWU: Lost 1.
Gardner-Webb vs. Converse, Friday, 7 p.m.
UNC vs. South Carolina in Myrtle Beach, Dec. 20, 2 p.m.