Settling for average

By the look on their faces, you'd have thought they lost in humiliating fashion.

Paris Kea, the leading scorer for the North Carolina women's basketball team, stared blankly ahead after her 30th consecutive game in double figures. Janelle Bailey, who turned in her fifth career double-double before fouling out late, hung her head in shame. Between them was Sylvia Hatchell, who was as despondent as a head coach can be after a conference win.

The Tar Heels (12-5, 2-2 ACC) did lose, in a way. Not on the court — where they bested Clemson, 59-52, in a game that should never have been so close — but in the locker room and at the podium, where Hatchell ripped into her players' effort and leadership after UNC nearly surrendered an 18-point lead at home to the Tigers (10-7, 0-4 ACC).

“We can’t accept being average," she said. "I can’t take that. It kills me whenever they take being average. That’s not our program, that’s not me and that’s not the way it’s going to be.”

As per usual, North Carolina looked well above average in the first quarter, holding the hapless Clemson offense to four points on 16 attempts. The Tar Heels scored 20 points on 47.1 percent shooting in the quarter, and they allowed just one offensive rebound and committed one turnover to build a comfortable lead.

It quickly became a tenuous one, though, when Hatchell's squad succumbed to bad habits. UNC mounted an 18-point edge in the second and third quarters, but the turnovers piled up, as did the ill-advised shots and ineffective box-outs and inadvertent fouls. The Tigers outscored the Tar Heels by five points in each of the final two quarters, cutting UNC's lead to five with 27 seconds left.

Taylor Koenen (1) scored the Tar Heels' first bucket before missing 12 of her final 13 shots.

Taylor Koenen (1) scored the Tar Heels' first bucket before missing 12 of her final 13 shots.

Clemson's defense — which entered the game ranked second in the ACC — predictably focused on Kea and senior Jamie Cherry, who finished with a game-high 20 points. But UNC's offense couldn't counter. Kea (4-for-17) and sophomore guard Taylor Koenen (2-for-14) had their worst shooting games of the season, and the Tar Heel bench combined to shoot 1-for-9.

"There's a reason why the other ones are open," Hatchell said.

North Carolina eventually sealed the deal with two Cherry free throws, staving off a 6-0 run by the Tigers. But the Tar Heels had mustered three quarters under 30 percent shooting, including an atrocious 2-for-17 effort in the final quarter, to let Clemson claw its way back into the contest. UNC struggled to get into its sets in the final minutes, settling for open shots from lackluster shooters instead of using the shot clock to feed its primary scorers — something Hatchell blames on lethargy and poor leadership.

“We’re capable of being a very, very good team ..." Hatchell said. “I know our team is better than what we’re showing. But we’re satisfying for being where we are.”

Hatchell has no trouble identifying a good team. In 1994, her North Carolina team won 33 games and a national championship, and the Tar Heels have been a mainstay in the Sweet 16 throughout the past two decades.

But they haven't been back since 2014-15, instead finishing with a losing record each of the past two seasons. A fair amount of those losses have followed a familiar pattern: build an early lead, watch it slip away in the second or third quarter and spend the fourth quarter in desperation mode.

Thursday was different; the early lead was big enough to thwart Clemson's late rally. But Hatchell let her players suffer the verbal sting of defeat, anyway. Good teams don't settle for average wins.

Janelle Bailey (44) finished the game 5-for-10 from the field, joining Olivia Smith (1-for-2) as the only Tar Heels to shoot at least 50 percent.

Janelle Bailey (44) finished the game 5-for-10 from the field, joining Olivia Smith (1-for-2) as the only Tar Heels to shoot at least 50 percent.

"We can't do that," Hatchell said. "We can't let ourselves do that."

After riding an eight-game winning streak late in nonconference play, UNC's only two ACC wins have come at home against the conference's two winless teams. The Tar Heels will be back on the practice court Friday at 1:45 p.m., by Hatchell's orders, with a trip to Wake Forest (10-7, 2-2 ACC) awaiting them on Sunday.

After Thursday's win, the players didn't have much to say. Kea shrugged off a question about her poor shooting night after a pedestrian 14 points, and Bailey deflected a question about foul trouble after her sixth disqualification of the season.

They didn't need to say much. Their expressions said it all.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Gabi Palacio