CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) – Paris Kea and North Carolina gave coach Sylvia Hatchell the “wow moment” she asked for: an upset of top-ranked Notre Dame.
Kea had season highs of 30 points and 10 assists to help the Tar Heels stun the Fighting Irish 78-73 on Sunday, earning the program’s first win against a No. 1-ranked team in nearly 13 years.
Stephanie Watts added 19 points for the Tar Heels (12-9, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), who played with confidence nearly all afternoon and stayed on the attack behind Kea’s hot hand.
UNC led by 10 early in the fourth quarter before Notre Dame ran off 12 straight points to take the lead. But instead of crumpling, the Tar Heels found a counterpunch to hold on.
Kea hit two free throws in the final 20 seconds to help keep control for the Tar Heels, who mobbed each other on the court as the horn sounded.
“We didn’t come into this game nervous,” Watts said. “We’re a good team. We’re a better team than what our record shows. We knew this was going to be a tough competitive game, and we were going to play it out to the end.”
It was the Tar Heels’ first win against the Fighting Irish since Notre Dame joined the ACC in the 2013-14 season, along with the program’s first win against the nation’s top-ranked team since beating Duke in a 1-vs-2 matchup in February 2006.
“These kids have worked really, really hard,” Hatchell said. “We had a great game plan. They executed it and we’ve talked the last few days about how we wanted to have a ‘wow’ moment.”
It certainly was a surprise, considering the reigning national champion Irish (19-2, 6-1) had faced relatively little stress in league play and suffered their only loss to Connecticut.
But Notre Dame turned in a mistake-filled performance without Jackie Young, who had a triple-double in Thursday’s win over Tennessee. Team spokesman Josh Bates said Young sprained her right ankle in practice Saturday.
Marina Mabrey had 20 points to lead Notre Dame, which shot 49 percent but had 20 turnovers while the defense was unable to stop Kea.
“She was the best player on the floor,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We had no answer for her. Just couldn’t guard her from anywhere – couldn’t contain her, couldn’t guard her off the 3-point line. It was really disappointing to see our defense collapse like that.”
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish had cruised through their first six ACC games, including a 14-point win in a 1-vs-2 matchup against Louisville. The other five games had come against unranked opponents, and Notre Dame had led each by double figures at halftime on the way to 20-point margins. That same edge never showed up in Chapel Hill, particularly with the turnovers – many of which coming with players just sailing passes straight out of bounds.
“I don’t know,” McGraw said when asked about the turnover problem. “We clearly weren’t playing our normal game.”
UNC: The Tar Heels were coming off a win at Virginia Tech for their second win in three outings after an 0-3 ACC start, so it was hard to see this coming. But Kea was unstoppable for much of the day, finishing 11 of 17 from the floor and 5 of 8 from behind the arc. Watts also knocked down five 3s, a reminder that the Tar Heels have a potent 1-2 punch on the perimeter.
CHURCH’S BIG BUCKET
UNC’s Leah Church came in averaging 3.3 points and 11.2 minutes per game but had the game’s biggest basket: a 3-pointer from the left corner at the 1:25 mark, which broke a 71-all tie and put UNC ahead for good.
The loss snapped a 198-game winning streak by No. 1 teams against unranked teams, according to ESPN. Additionally, Notre Dame had won the five meetings against UNC since joining the ACC by 25, 10, 34, 22 and 32 points.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish play their third straight road game Thursday at Clemson.
UNC: The Tar Heels host Georgia Tech on Thursday.
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