by Mike Potter
CARMICHAEL ARENA/CHAPEL HILL It's that unique final regular-season game that UNC is playing after the ACC Women's Tournament for the second straight season.
Today the Tar Heels take on local rival N.C. Central, which like the South Dakota team UNC played in this situation last year is transitioning from Division II and not yet eligible for post-season play.
Last season, the Coyotes put a huge scare into the Tar Heels at the Smith Center before falling 75-69.
This is of course the season finale for the Eagles, who have won 11 of their last 19 games after an 0-9 start. NCCU is 0-4 against the ACC this season, but did fall by only 76-63 on Feb. 22 at Wake Forest.
It's the third straight season in which they've played each other, and the closer of the two games was a 98-45 UNC victory last season in the Smith Center.
All the NCAA bracketologies heading into Monday night's selection show have the Tar Heels in the 64-team field, but a shocking home-court loss to NCCU would probably send Sylvia Hatchell's club to the WNIT.
UNC will have to play without freshman center Waltiea Rolle, who is out with a concussion.
It takes them a while to establish control but the Tar Heels avoid that disaster, eventually winning 88-66 in a pretty entertaining contest.
NCCU freshman star Joanna Miller comes out firing on all cylinders, scoring the Eagles' first 10 points, and her teammates follow. The Eagles are actually ahead twice once the action gets fired up, leading for the last time at 20-18 on a Blaire Houston jumper with 11:18 left in the first half.
The Tar Heels make a run at the end of the first half to lead 47-33 going into the locker rooms, and get a 20-point lead for good at 66-45 on a Cierra Robertson-Warren bucket with 11:18 to play.
UNC makes Hatchell happy by getting five players into double figures. Shegog leads the way with 17 points, followed by Laura Broomfield with 12 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. Cetera DeGraffenreid (pictured) adds 11 while Lucas and Trinity Bursey - playing her final home game - chip in 10 each.
Miller leads the Eagles with 21 points, collecting the odd double-double with 10 turnovers. Shanise Blanks adds 14 and Blaire Houston 13 while Latoya Bennett chips in 11 in her final collegiate game.
The Tar Heels shoot 48.7 percent to NCCU's 34.9, win the rebound battle 46-35 and commit 20 turnovers to the Eagles' 26.
They said it ...
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell: "It was a good win and good play. We came back from Greensboro (after losing in the first round of the ACC) and practiced Saturday, Sunday and Monday and had some really good practices. We had some defensive breakdowns I was unhappy with in the first half, but we had good ball movement and five people in double figures. We're just waiting to see what's going to happen (with the NCAA selection). ... No doubt we had to win. Central had won four of their last six games, and Miller can play. She's hard to stop out there. We realized that they were a better team than (our players) thought they were, and then we picked up our intensity."
NCCU coach Joli Robinson: "We've had the opportunity to come over here before, and I think we were not as nervous as the first couple of years. We spent a lot of time watching game film and that helped a lot. I was amazed at how we did the first half. I thought we'd still be nervous, and we held our own. We talked about how this was similar to a practice game for (UNC), and we didn't want this to be a practice game they could just run away with. We pushed up our game and just weren't deep enough. Joanna goes hard the entire game, and to have her has been a blessing."
DeGraffenreid: "I feel good about our team right now. We've had some really good practices, working on our ball movement and everything. With the offense we ran today, I think going into the tournament we're going to do really well in it."
Miller: "I think we gave it all we had. We slowed down a little in the second half, but it was still a pretty good game. I feel like the program is going to be stronger next year, and this was just a taste of what the team can do."
What does it all mean?
That UNC's chances to make the NCAA field would seem to be over 90 percent. And that NCCU's program continues to get better as the Eagles make the transition to full Division I membership the year after next.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Lucas' 3-pointer with 14:38 left to make it 60-44.
UNC leads 3-0.
UNC: Won 1.
NCCU: Lost 1.
UNC in post-season play.
NCCU's 2010-11 opener.