Stuart Scott was definitely on the minds of the North Carolina women’s basketball team heading into Sunday’s ACC opener against N.C. State.
The No. 9 Tar Heels, who learned of his death at the end of a long battle with cancer earlier in the day, did the ESPN anchor proud.
Stephanie Mavunga had 23 points with 12 rebounds and a career-high five assists, leading the Tar Heels to a 72-56 victory in the ACC opener for both teams.
UNC improved to 14-1 while the Wolfpack fell to 9-5.
Scott had been a long-time fixture in the Tar Heels’ “Late Night with Roy” preseason celebration until missing it this season, and had introduced every player except freshman Jamie Cherry at the Smith Center.
“The kids all knew (Scott),” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “He was one of the first people to call me when I got diagnosed with leukemia (in October of 2013) and he has kept up with me all along. I talked about what he had said to me – ‘Hey, you’re a Carolina girl and you’re tough, and you can do this.’
“We started a little bit sluggish. We knew State would try to control the tempo and battle us hard. And they outrebounded us, which I’m not happy about. ... It was a great game and a great crowd. And we’ve done a good job playing well in the second half.”
Allisha Gray added 13 points and 10 rebounds for much-deeper UNC, which has won six straight in the series. Brittany Rountree chipped in 14.
Dominique Wilson led the outsized Wolfpack with 15 points, 13 of them in the second half following some early foul trouble. Miah Spencer and Len’Nique Brown-Hoskin each added 11. The Wolfpack played its second game without senior starting guard Krystal Barrett, who is out indefinitely following an ACL injury during a win against visiting Davidson on Dec. 19.
“We knew today was going to be a big challenge,” said N.C. State coach Wes Moore, who said that ESPN’s SportsCenter – the centerpiece of Scott’s career – was one of his favorite TV programs. “Obviously (the Tar Heels) are playing well. They’re very talented and well-coached.
“Their (20-3) run to start the second half was a tough one. But I’m very proud of our kids down the stretch, the last 10-12 minutes, the way they competed.”
N.C. State leads the all-time series 51-48, but the Tar Heels have won 25 of the past 30 meetings.
UNC shot 45 percent to the Wolfpack’s 30.3, but was outrebounded 42-39 as every N.C. State player who took the floor hauled in at least one. Each team turned the ball over 16 times, although UNC had 17 assists to N.C. State’s seven.
“I was talking about assists the whole time after the game,” Mavunga said. “I was really excited about that. It was something I’ve never had in my game, really. It’s fun seeing your teammate celebrate and point.”
After leading 34-25 at the break, the Tar Heels put the game away with a spree early in the second half.
N.C. State trailed 41-28 on a 3-pointer from Wilson with 16 minutes, 37 seconds left in the game before the Tar Heels went on a 13-0 run that included seven points from Gray. The Wolfpack’s Ashley Williams hit a 3-pointer with 11:43 left to cut the margin to 54-31.
The Wolfpack’s closest approach after that was the final score.
“We weren’t communicating well enough (during the run) and not getting back in transition,” Brown-Hoskin said. “But Coach kept telling us no matter what the score, you’ve got to play. And play with heart no matter what.”
UNC guard Megan Buckland was out after separating her shoulder in Friday’s win against East Tennessee State.
The rematch is on Jan. 22 at Reynolds Coliseum.
N.C. State hosts Virginia Tech on Thursday night at 7, while UNC is at Pittsburgh the same night.