Sundays are for Paris Kea.
The Tar Heels may have lost to No. 9 NC State 74-69, on Sunday, February 24, but that’s not what the focus was before, during or after the game.
Even the Wolfpack’s head coach Wes Moore started his postgame press conference with his own thoughts on her.
“I think I’ll probably drive over here for graduation and shake her hand,” said Moore. “She’s given us fits.”
Kea was herself from start to finish, calm and collected as her coach Sylvia Hatchell likes to say. She had her famous curly blonde hair tied up on top of her head – Hatchell also said that she likes to call her “Golden Girl” because of it – and was even trying to get a dunk or two off in pregame warm ups.
Laughing with assistant coach Sylvia Crawley, who was known for her dunking ability in her playing days, Kea didn’t come close to slamming the ball through. When she was announced in the lineup just before tipoff, the crowd cheered twice as loud for her than anyone else.
She just made her way down the line of fans on the floor seats, giving high-fives like she always does.
Kea even missed her first shot, a three from the left wing, but she’d just shoot plenty more to make up for that one. In fact, she finished the game with four threes made, enough to boost her to 32 points at the final buzzer.
The Tar Heels lost by five, scoring 24 less than their most recent game against Boston College. But if you take out the scoring of Kea and her backcourt counterpart Shayla Bennett, Carolina only scored 19.
In postgame, Coach Hatchell mentioned the effect that Kea not being at the Duke game earlier this season had on the team. “She’s a special young lady,” said Hatchell. This game was a perfect example why.
When Kea’s younger teammates Janelle Bailey and Taylor Koenen got off to a rough start – they finished the game a combined 7-27 from the field – Kea took over. The team came out flat, and then Paris hit a jump shot. Then, she hit a layup, stole the inbounds pass immediately after and proceeded to hit both of her free throws on a shooting foul, all in a matter of seconds.
When the Heels were down 9 in the third quarter, Kea hit a runner in the lane. Down 11, moments later, she hit a layup through a foul. “And-one,” screamed her teammates.
In the fourth, down by six, two more Kea free throws. Down three, another and-one to tie it up.
She took the lead with a layup. She kept them in it twice again. One again, an and-one to keep the Heels above water.
But with just a minute left and down two, she shot the first of two free throws short, clanging off the rim. Did she get angry, or even show a bit of emotion? No, Kea just looked down for a moment and prepared for the second one. It went in, but the Heels couldn’t shake the deficit and the game quickly slipped out of reach.
Coach Hatchell told it honestly afterwards, “She’s had to carry us a lot of times.” To Paris Kea, it was just another Sunday. “I was just trying to put my team in position to win the game,” she said.
Kea’s family was at the game, as they always are. She listed that as one of her favorite things about playing at UNC. They couldn’t go to many Vanderbilt games when she was there as a freshman, but in Chapel Hill, they’re there every game, an hour early.
As soon as she finished shaking the hands of her opponents after the loss, Kea raced over to her family and gave them all hugs. In the postgame, she had replaced her jersey with a shirt that read, “I PLAY 4” in pink above one word in black sharpie. “Family.”
Next Sunday, the Tar Heels will travel to Cameron Indoor and play the Blue Devils.
Last season, Kea scored 36 on a Sunday against them and pushed her team to a win. This season, she scored 30 on a Sunday and the Tar Heels beat top-ranked Notre Dame. One week later, the Heels topped then-unbeaten NC State and Kea had 17 points and led the team in assists.
This Sunday, the Tar Heels lost in Kea’s last chance at a win at home. But she was just focused on the next one, calling the Duke rivalry the biggest in sports and commenting on the tenacity of the fans in Cameron Indoor.
Even in the one time that Kea let out a sign of melancholy, she kept it at, “Today was emotional.” Next question.
Coach Hatchell repeatedly made the point that if the team had Stephanie Watts in this game, the redshirt junior guard who has shined for the Heels this season, they would have been better. But she didn’t harp on it for too long, because the day was more about her senior star.
When asked about her approach to Kea’s last game, Hatchell smiled and said that she told her in warmups, “I sure am glad you came here.”