TUCSON, Ariz. — North Carolina looked like it might add its name to the list of upset victims as March Madness descended upon the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
A dominating fourth quarter kept the Tar Heels moving forward in the bracket.
Deja Kelly scored 28 points, Kennedy Todd-Williams added 15 and North Carolina pulled away in the fourth on Saturday night to beat Stephen F. Austin 79-66 in the Greensboro Region.
“At halftime, we really got into them a little bit and required that we get back to our standard,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “What I’ll remember about this game is how much these guys trusted each other. When things weren’t going well, the ball moved better and they just really trusted each other.”
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels (24-6) had not played for more than two weeks after being bounced in the first round of the ACC Tournament — and it showed. North Carolina struggled with turnovers, defensive rebounding and dug itself into an early 10-point hole.
The Tar Heels finally found the right gear in the fourth quarter, hitting 7 of 13 shots and using a 10-0 run to build an 11-point lead after trailing most of the afternoon.
The Tar Heels, who were ranked 17th in the final Associated Press poll, move on to face either Arizona or UNLV in the second round on Monday.
“In the fourth quarter, we just had to dig deep,” said UNC’s Alyssa Ustby, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. “Everybody is tired at that point. We really had to focus and lock in defensively in order to keep them off the scoreboard.”
Zya Nugent scored 26 points for No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin (28-5), which was eyeing another in a string of lower-seed wins in this year’s bracket. The Ladyjacks led by 10 midway through the second quarter and were still up heading into the fourth.
But SFA folded under North Carolina’s pressure in the final quarter, shooting 3 of 13 to end what had been a memorable first season in the Western Athletic Conference.
“We were so dialed in I thought for the most part other than transition defense a little bit that whole game,” SFA coach Mark Kellogg said. “Then they just made us pay and that’s what they can do, teams of North Carolina caliber.
“They make you pay when you make a mistake. We made a few too many, and that rim got pretty big and they got going, and we just couldn’t stop the run.”
The Ladyjacks had given teams trouble all season with their full-court press, leading the nation with a plus-8.3 turnover margin on the way to winning the WAC regular-season title.
The Tar Heels refused to get sped up, methodically passing the ball up the floor to break the press.
Half-court sets were another story. North Carolina had several sloppy turnovers in the first half — 10 total — and had a hard time keeping the Ladyjacks off the offensive glass.
SFA opened the second quarter with 10-0 run to go up 10, but didn’t score over the final 2:49 to allow the Tar Heels to pull within 36-33 at halftime. The Ladyjacks scored 14 points off 10 first-half offensive rebounds, leading to a stern halftime talk by Banghart.
“My grandmother wouldn’t have been happy to be in the room, if that’s what you’re asking,” she said. “We were hoping that they could play their rust off, but that didn’t happen. So I felt like I could maybe push it off myself with my words.”
Both teams started hot and went cold in the third quarter. SFA led 56-54 despite a 4 1/2-minute scoreless drought.
SFA continued to struggle offensively, unable to hit anything until Nugent banked in a 3-pointer to end the long field goal-less drought.
North Carolina turned stops into points, going on a 10-0 run to take a 70-59 lead and kept SFA at bay by playing well at both ends of the floor.
“We were up two going into the fourth quarter and didn’t play particularly well in that quarter, but up until then I thought our kids battled,” Kellogg said. “I thought there was no moment too big. We settled in and played and played really from the tip. That’s all we had asked them to do and give ourselves an opportunity and a chance to win it late, which we did, and we just didn’t find a way to get it done.”