Sylvia Hatchell made her return to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for North Carolina on Saturday, and her Tar Heels ran into a little more trouble than they might have liked.
But in the end, they had a bit too much talent for a determined Liberty squad.
Allisha Gray led the way with 17 points, including a follow shot with 10 seconds left that proved to be the clincher, as the No.-4 seeded Tar Heels held off the 13th-seeded Flames 71-65 in a first-round contest at Carmichael Arena.
The Tar Heels (25-8) will face No. 5 seed Ohio State (24-10), which eliminated No. 12 seed James Madison 90-80 in Saturday’s second game, on Monday night at 6:30. That winner will advance to the semifinals of the Greensboro Regional.
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Senior Latifah Coleman added 15 points – the most she has scored in 2015 – and Stephanie Mavunga 12 for UNC.
Ashley Rininger, a 6-foot-4 junior center forward, led the Flames (26-7) with 19 points and 13 rebounds, followed by Karly Buer with 14 points. Charlotte Butler alumna Jaymee Fisher-Davis had six points while Mickayla Sanders, who played her high school ball at Cary Adademy, added four and three rebounds for the Flames.
“We’re just happy to come out with the win,” Hatchell said. “Last year this week was a really tough time for me, because I couldn’t even go to the games.
“I thought we were very rusty at times and our rebounding was – I don’t know how to describe it but it was pretty bad. It got a little wild at times out there, but Latifah settled us down and we kept trying to go to (Gray and Mavunga) and Stephanie was overplayed a lot. I’m just looking forward to playing on Monday night.”
Liberty has won the Big South Conference championship 13 times since 2000, but missed out on an NCAA appearance last season. And the Lynchburg, Va., school’s fans made up about a third of the crowd of 2,098.
“We were down 14 at halftime and had a big hill to climb,” said Liberty coach Carey Green, a former assistant at Clemson. “We climbed the hill, but right when we got it to six we turned it over and didn’t get the shot.
“We made some mistakes in the first half and (Carolina) shot the ball very well and put us in a hole. But we showed determination and character in the second half, and certainly came back and showed what we’re made of.”
The Tar Heels shot 49.1 percent to Liberty’s 34.8, but the Tar Heels lost the rebound battle by a whopping 52-35, their worst deficit on the boards all season.
“You can’t take anyone lightly (in the NCAA tournament),” Mavunga said. “We knew we had to focus, and it was going to be a game of runs. After we had that 14-point lead in the first half we knew Liberty was going to come out and attack hard. They kept chipping away at the lead, and we really had to buckle down.”
The Tar Heels took the lead for what turned out to be for good at 14-12 on a Jessica Washington 3-pointer at 12:16, and stretched the advantage to 39-25 at halftime.
But that didn’t douse the Flames. The Tar Heels were up 43-29 following a Gray bucket at 17:06 before Liberty went on a 13-5 run to cut it to six on a Rininger bucket at 11:23.
“We definitely picked up the tempo,” Gray said. “At the end, you noticed (Liberty) turned the ball over a lot.”
The Tar Heels got it back to 11 at 61-50 on a pair of N’Dea Bryant free throws with 4:49 left. But Liberty cut it to six twice on Fisher-Davis baskets, the last at 69-63 on a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left before Gray’s final bucket
“This was the most motivation I’ve had by far in my career,” said Coleman, who would have been in her final collegiate game if Liberty had scored the upset. “I’ll do whatever I can to survive and advance.
“... Now that Coach Hatchell is just great. It’s just more fuel to the fire.”