by Mike Potter
CARMICHAEL ARENA/CHAPEL HILL UNC puts its 9-0 record and No. 12 ranking on the line today, and it’s against a much more serious challenge than the last game against East Tennessee State.
Adding some interest is that Las Vegas is the hometown of UNC’s leading scorer and senior guard Italee Lucas.
The Tar Heels get their toughest test of the season besides the Iowa game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and finally escape in the closing minutes for a 78-66 win.
The game looks easy for about the first four minutes as the Tar Heels get a 9-3 lead. But they’re never able to shake the Rebels, who go up 32-27 on a Lenita Sanford field goal with 2:40 left in the half before the Tar Heels close to 32-31 at the break.
UNC dominates the early going in the second half, jumping out to a 42-34 advantage on a pair of Cetera DeGraffenreid free throws with 16:18 left.
The Rebels take the lead for the last time after Tia Morrison scores six straight points for the visitors, her layup at 11:19 making it 46-45.
But the Tar Heels get the advantage again on a pair of Jessica Breland free throws at 10:55 followed by an old-fashioned three-point play from She’la White at 10:30 and a pair of Chay Shegog free throws at 9:53.
The lead is 65-60 before Breland goes on a late spree, hitting seven of the Tar Heels’ next nine points before teammates tack on the last six at the line for the final score.
Breland, who is famously coming off a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma that kept her out all of last season, finishes with a season-high 24 points in a season-high 28 minutes. Lucas finishes with 16 points while the team’s other scholarship senior DeGraffenreid adds 11 including 9-for-10 from the line.
Kelli Thompson leads UNLV with 22 points, followed by Jamie Smith with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
The Rebels outshoot the Tar Heels, who trail in the second half for the first time all season 36.8 to 35.4 and win the rebound battle 43-34. But UNC finishes with 19 steals to help cause 34 turnovers, and goes 31-for-41 from the line to the Rebels’ 17-for-20.
They said it …
UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell: “I think we saw what difference Breland can make. A game like this last year would probably have gone the other way. But she stepped up when we needed her to, and also Cetera did a great job running things out there. We only had 14 turnovers, and we’ve been taking good care of the basketball. The biggest thing was rebounding. The first half they were physical and they were just much more intense than we were. In the second half we got in there and competed a lot harder. The rebounding kept them in the game.
UNLV coach Kathy Olivier: “North Carolina is a very good basketball team. Hopefully we’re going to learn from this game. They do a great job of when you’re down and you turn the ball over and you think ‘We’re not doing well right now,’ they take it up another level and rattle off 2-3 baskets instantly. Hopefully we can learn how to do that ourselves. If we can get that killer instinct, that would really help.”
Breland: “I feel like this game, especially the second half, I kind of got into the flow of the game. I’ve been just working on letting it come to me and doing whatever my team needs for me to do. Sometimes I can get away with not producing too many points. But tonight they kind of needed me to step up. I really got into the flow. I’m very relaxed with this team because I can do a lot of different things. I don’t necessarily have to score.”
DeGraffenreid: “We had to fight back in defense. If your shot’s not falling you have to fight elsewhere. We started getting the ball inside and Jessica picked it up for us. That’s Jessica — I knew it was going to happen at one point. A game like this would have gone the other way had she not been here like last year. She stepped it up. Seeing her play like that inspires you and makes you want to play harder.”
What does it all mean?
That the Tar Heels can overcome a lot of adversity to hold off a scrappy opponent at home, and that UNLV may be a little better than advertised.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
White’s three-point play on a DeGraffenreid assist to make it 50-46 with 10:30 to go.
UNC leads 3-0.
UNC: Won 10.
UNLV: Lost 1.
UNLV vs. South Florida, Saturday, 5 p.m.
UNC vs. South Carolina in Myrtle Beach, Dec. 19, 3 p.m.