On paper, they’ll chalk it up as the seventh double-digit loss in a row for a North Carolina women’s basketball team that has struggled to perform against ACC competition.
But after Sunday's 67-57 loss to No. 4 Louisville, it felt like anything but that.
Within just a couple minutes, the Tar Heels (14-13, 4-10 ACC) took the lead as senior guard Jamie Cherry dropped in a three-pointer. From then on out, the lead was in Carolina’s hands for the next three quarters, although never too far out of reach for the Cardinals (27-2, 13-1 ACC).
The Heels extended the margin to seven points midway through the second quarter and didn't lose the lead through the third quarter. But Louisville came charging back and took the lead on the first basket of the fourth quarter, a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
For a team with four ACC wins, though, UNC's success was surprising against a top-five team. And it came from two areas defense and Janelle Bailey.
Carolina forced 20 turnovers in the game and attacked on the fast break. Taylor Koenen was particularly active, forcing three steals on the game with hard and physical defense, keeping her hands up and alive in the passing lanes.
Meanwhile, Bailey led all scorers with 20 points on the game and added seven rebounds, including five on the offensive glass. She played like a woman on a mission, bodying Cardinal players and using her length to grab boards and shoot over defenders efficiently. Throw in a solid free-throw outing (6-for-8) and it added up to an outstanding game from a freshman with future All-American written all over her.
In the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels got tired. Louisville has had a knack for laying it onto teams late — including Thursday's win over Boston College, when the Cardinals trailed in the second quarter and proceeded to win the game by 35. Louisville star Asia Durr, who led her team with 19 points on Sunday, opened up the late scoring with a three to start the fourth quarter to take the lead. Her team followed suit, hitting two more in a row.
It ended as a 10-point margin, but there was more to it than that. Carolina fans were treated to a fight by a team that hasn’t always shown one this season. Reminiscent of their Duke game performance, the Tar Heels came out looking for a win and didn't go down without swinging as many punches as possible: stepback jumpers, hard-fought rebounds, fast-paced movement.
It all came while donning pink gear from head to toe to honor Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame N.C. State coach who passed away from cancer in 2009. Watching from the sidelines as four breast cancer survivors were honored at halftime and an overmatched UNC team played its heart out gave it all a new perspective.
Yow often said, “You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” This season won’t end the way the Tar Heel players, coaches or the fans wanted it to. But there is a core of women in place who want to win games and have more than enough talent to do so.
“To play the No. 4 team in the country like we did, we did a lot of good things," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "Just keep working hard. I’m excited about the progress that we’ve made, how hard the kids are working.”
She’s right: they’re in a good place, no matter what the scoreboards may say right now. The sails just need some adjusting.