SAN ANTONIO (WNCN) – Stephanie Watts put up a team-high 29 points, but UNC fell behind early and could not overtake Alabama. The Tar Heels lost their first-round NCAA Tournament game Monday, 80-71, marking the end of their season.
“I feel for those kids. They have done so much to make this year happen,” said UNC head coach Courtney Banghart. “They opted in all year long — not once, but every single day — and to abide by the standard and to create the standard for Carolina basketball.”
UNC briefly took a 1-point lead early in the game off an Alyssa Ustby layup, but it was short lived. UNC shot just 21 percent from the field in the first quarter while Alabama built a 7-point lead that turned in to a 10-point lead at the half.
After the break, UNC would cut into the lead but could never seem to overtake Alabama. The Tide’s Jordan Lewis made sure of that by putting up a game-high 32 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
“Jordan Lewis was a woman amongst children it looked like at times,” Banghart said. “They really affected us by getting into the paint with the dribble and we are not elite at guarding the ball yet. Athletically, we don’t have always the speed or the length we need to do that really well.”
“We really need to work on our on-ball defending. That was a problem today,” Watts said. “It’s March. Nothing is easy, and I give credit to Alabama for them to be able to convert on our lack of on-ball presence.”
In her final game, Watts put on a show by scoring 29 points, grabbing 5 rebounds, dishing out 3 assists and registering 3 blocked shots.
“I just wanted to bring that tradition back to Carolina. I was going to do whatever I can to win this ballgame,” Watts said. “Obviously, we came up short, but my mentality was I am going to leave it all out there. This is my last game in a Carolina uniform, which means a lot to me.”
“There was no way that Stephanie Watts was going to come back to Carolina, do everything she could to get this team back to the NCAA Tournament, and then lay an egg,” Banghart said. “That was never in the thought, it was never a worry. I just didn’t have to worry so in a way I didn’t have to coach Stephanie Watts today.”
This marked the last game for seniors Janelle Bailey, Watts, and Petra Holešínská. There’s no doubt they would have wanted a deeper run in the postseason, but despite not bringing back a tangible trophy, their coach made sure the group knew how much they meant to her and the program before she left the podium.
“They (seniors) have brought Carolina back to where it belongs,” Banghart said. “It’s on us to continue to build on the tradition so that this stay is longer moving forward.”
Looking ahead, UNC has five freshman and two sophomores now with NCAA Tournament experience. That’s something that will not only help them on the court, but in the offseason, as well. They have experienced the sweet taste of post-season play, as well as the bitterness of leaving early.
“We need these young guys on this stage. They need to figure out how to be big in big moments. And they have been during the year, but as you know, the NCAA Tournament is totally different,” Banghart said. “The result and the journey of the NCAA Tournament, it really drives you in the offseason
“I can assure you our young players are going to put the work in to make sure they are more prepared individually the next time they get this chance.”