Tucson, AZ—No. 5 North Carolina women’s basketball team (24-6, 13-5 ACC) beat No.12 Stephen F. Austin (28-5) 79-66 in their first-round NCAA tournament matchup on Saturday at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona.
Carolina has won seven of its last nine games and won its first NCAA tournament game since 2015. UNC had first-round exits in 2019 and 2021.
UNC sits a win away from returning to Greensboro for the tournament’s Sweet 16. Standing in their way will be either No. 4 seed Arizona/UNLV, the hosts for the first and second rounds.
The Ladyjacks sprinted off to an 11-0 run between the first and second quarters, turning an 18-17 deficit into a 28-18 lead. But the Tar Heels stuck with their game plan in the second half.
SFA took a 36-33 lead into the break with upset on their mind.
“Clearly, we hadn’t played in two and a half weeks, except for one game” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart. “And you could tell. There was a lot of rust on both ends.”
Coming into the game as heavy favorites, the Tar Heels trailed most of the third quarter. UNC settled down in the fourth quarter and made plays. The Ladyjacks led by 10 points halfway through the third, but the Heels closed the quarter on an 8-0 run. UNC took a two-point lead on a layup from Kennedy Todd-Williams and never looked back. After the Todd-Williams basket, the Tar Heels scored the next five possessions. That ultimately did in the Ladyjacks, who went cold after an impressive third.
The Tar Heels then put on a shooting clinic in the fourth, outscoring SFA 25-10 in the final frame. In that same frame, SFA shot just 3 of 13 from the hardwood. The Ladyjacks couldn’t buy a bucket in the fourth quarter.
“At halftime, we really got into the team a little bit,” Banghart said. “And we required that we get back to our standard.”
The Tar Heels shot 53.8 percent in the fourth quarter, while holding Stephen F. Austin to just 23.1 percent in the same timespan. The Ladyjacks shot just 9-30 in the second half as a whole, in which Carolina outscored Stephen F. Austin 46-30.
“What I’ll remember about this game is how much these guys trusted each other,” said Banghart. “When things weren’t going well. They really just trusted each other. Huge win for our program with how far we’ve come.”
Four Tar Heel starters and five players overall joined Deja Kelly in double figures. Eva Hodgson finished with 10 points in 29 minutes off the bench, including two critical three-pointers in the third to keep the Ladyjacks at bay. Carolina got behind early due to 10 first-half turnovers, which gave Stephen F. Austin 10 points. Even more concerning, the Ladyjacks were outrebounding the Tar Heels by a 22-16 margin and had 14 second-chance points, compared to just five from Carolina.
Zya Nugent led SFA with a game-high 26 points.