Two sides of history

It's officially the midpoint of a historic season for the North Carolina women's basketball team. Which side of history depends on the week.

Coming into Friday's game at Boston College, the Tar Heels (10-5, 0-2 ACC) hadn't lost in six previous meetings at the Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass. The Eagles were the only team in the ACC with a losing record this season — and the only team to win fewer ACC games than North Carolina last season.

But, of course, Boston College (6-9, 1-1 ACC) was too much for a Tar Heel team flirting with disaster just a week into the new year.

Friday's 77-64 loss came on the heels of UNC's conference opener in Tallahassee, Fla., where the Tar Heels fell by 38 points to No. 13 Florida State. It was North Carolina's worst loss since Dec. 2, 2012, when it lost by 45 points at No. 16 Tennessee, and its worst ACC loss since Jan. 27, 2000, when No. 9 Duke beat its archrival by 43 points.

In both ACC losses this season, the Tar Heels jumped out to an early lead — emblematic of the team's talent and potential — only to squander it. Both Florida State and Boston College took control in the second quarter, denying easy baskets inside and relying on a barrage of three-pointers to bury North Carolina.

It's a tried and true formula for Tar Heel opponents: attack them where they're weak and watch them wear down. This season, that's meant fouling out Janelle Bailey, UNC's freshman phenom whose performance has been award-winning when she can stay on the court. Without her, UNC becomes predictable: mid-range jumpers from Paris Kea (the team's only active All-ACC player), deep threes from Jamie Cherry (the team's only senior) and a whole lot of ball movement to nowhere.

 North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell (left) talks to guards Paris Kea (22) and Taylor Koenen (1) during a timeout early in the season.

North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell (left) talks to guards Paris Kea (22) and Taylor Koenen (1) during a timeout early in the season.

It sounds awfully similar to the story of last year's squad, which promised a brighter future in the face of mounting losses. But halfway through this season, it's fair to ask: where is the light?

Fresh off the first consecutive losing seasons in nearly three decades, North Carolina rolled through December on a wave reminiscent of its pre-2015 success. On Dec. 19, 2017, the Tar Heels beat Grambling State in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in head coach Sylvia Hatchell's 1,000th career victory. The win came two days after defeating Washington, a 2017 Final Four team, and two weeks after a 35-point win over Presbyterian, marking UNC's third-biggest margin of victory in three years.

Hatchell's 1,000th win was the Tar Heels' ninth in a row, setting their longest winning streak since before the mass exodus of the 2013 recruiting class. For the first time in years, this team was in history's favor.

Then came the other side.

After a nine-day layoff, the Tar Heels returned home and dropped their nonconference finale to Mercer, a team UNC beat by 60 points in their last meeting in 1985. Then came the embarrassing loss at Florida State and the subsequent defeat at Boston College. It's all too similar to last season, when North Carolina brought an 11-2 record into ACC play, dropped its first two conference games and finished with a losing record.

So which direction is this program headed?

After last season's disappointing finish, and in the weeks before this season, Hatchell preached a new reality after the toughest years of her coaching career. Kea would take a quantum leap after her first year on the court for UNC. Bailey would help usher in a new era of Carolina basketball as a physical post presence. The Tar Heels' pair of injured 2015 commits — Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker — would amplify a loaded backcourt. And Cherry, ever the veteran, would shephard it all.

To Hatchell's credit, most of that has come to fruition. Kea's grown from a versatile playmaker to an unstoppable one — leading UNC in assists with 6.3 per game while scoring in double figures for 28 straight games as the ACC's second-leading scorer with 20.3 points per game. Bailey is the reigning ACC Rookie of the Week for the fourth time already, leading all conference freshmen in points (15.3) and rebounds (7.7) per game. And, miraculously, Cherry's taking more shots and playing more minutes than at any point in her career.

But the wins aren't coming. Even without Watts and Walker — who were projected to return by December at the latest — the emergence of former five-star recruit Taylor Koenen and introduction of freshmen Jaelynn Murray and Jocelyn Jones haven't been enough to jump-start this program. Meanwhile, history keeps rearing its ugly head.

The Tar Heels' next opponent is a familiar one in Pittsburgh, the team that survived Cherry's buzzer-beater in the 2016 ACC Tournament before she exacted revenge last season with a career-high 32 points in Conway, S.C., the site of the 2017 ACC Tournament. They'll meet again Sunday in UNC's conference home opener, Hatchell still sitting on 1,000 wins and North Carolina standing at a crossroads.

The last time the Tar Heels beat the Panthers in the regular season was 2013-14, when the team made the Elite Eight with its top recruiting class intact. The last time the Tar Heels started 0-3 in conference play was 1990-91, when they went 2-12 in the ACC and finished 12-16 overall.

Which side of history is next?

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones