TUCSON, Ariz. - North Carolina’s players locked arms and kicked in unison as the band played the school fight song in an otherwise-deflated McKale Center. The kick line broke apart, turning in a mosh pit of dancing, the small contingent of fans in power blue roaring in approval.
Courtney Banghart’s rebuilding project has been fast-tracked — and it sure feels sweet.
Kennedy Todd-Williams scored 19 points, Deja Kelly added 15 and North Carolina overwhelmed Arizona 63-45 on March 21 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years.
"It’s remarkable," said Banghart, her hair drenched from the locker room celebration. "Led by Deja, they really had to take a chance with the program in a bit of turmoil. We had to kind of piece it together because it’s early in our rebirth and these guys worked really hard."
Banghart left Princeton to take over a North Carolina program fighting through a tumultuous period after Sylvia Hatchell resigned in 2019.
She quickly molded the Tar Heels back into a national power, taking them to the NCAA Tournament in her second season.
Seeded fifth in the Greensboro Region this year, the Tar Heels (25-6) needed a big fourth quarter to beat Stephen F. Austin in their opener on Saturday but smothered Arizona from the start. North Carolina went on a 15-0 run to lead by nine at halftime, then stretched it 20 with a dominating third quarter.
The Tar Heels held Arizona (22-7) to 29% shooting, including 7 from 27 from 3, to earn a spot in the regional semifinals Friday against No. 1 overall seed South Carolina.
"Our coaches said to build a wall before this game and that’s exactly what we did," said Todd-Williams, who had seven rebounds and five assists. "We played together and played with a lot of energy."
No. 4 Arizona had a disjointed start for the second straight NCAA Tournament game at the McKale Center. Unlike their comeback against UNLV, the Wildcats had no answer for the Tar Heels.
Arizona went through long scoring droughts in each half and had nothing left to mount a comeback, following up last year’s run to the national title game with a second-round dud in front of 8,333 fans.
Senior Sam Thomas led Arizona with 15 points.
"I really felt like coming into this game we would have more a sense of urgency overall because we had some experience last year," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. "That was the disappointing thing for me, to not be able to lock in and the mental mistakes."
The Wildcats were jittery early against UNLV in their first home NCAA Tournament game since 1998, allowing the Lady Rebels to hang around before finally pulling away with a dominating fourth quarter.
Arizona had a similar start against North Carolina. This time, it kept spiraling.
Disjointed and tentative against North Carolina’s amoebic zone, the Wildcats shot 3 of 14, had four turnovers and didn’t score over the final 5:19 of the first quarter.
Arizona’s offensive struggles continued, adding seven more missed shots until Thomas hit a 3-pointer with 3:52 left in the second quarter. North Carolina took advantage of the Arizona clanging, scoring the first nine points of the quarter to stretch a five-point lead to 23-9.
North Carolina held the Wildcats to 6-of-26 shooting 4 of 16 from 3 in the first half to lead 28-17.
"Our guys were real disciplined and you have to be to beat a good team on the road," Banghart said.
Arizona and its crowd came out of halftime with a refreshed energy. The Tar Heels weathered the early burst — the Wildcats cut the lead to seven — and pushed back. North Carolina closed the first half on a 15-2 run, capped by Kelly’s three-point play, to stretch the lead to 47-27.
Arizona had a scoreless drought of more than five minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters, all but ending its hopes of consecutive trips to the Sweet 16.
"We didn’t really play that well, we didn’t look hungry on the floor," said Arizona’s Bendu Yeaney, who had 10 points. "This is a bitter moment."
Thomas arrived at Arizona when the program was down, winning six games her freshman season. She and Cate Reese helped the Wildcats rise into a national powerhouse and shared a long hug after her final game at McKale Center.
"These fans and this team have been everything to me," she said, fighting back tears.
North Carolina carried a dominating fourth quarter against Stephen F. Austin into a hostile environment a blew out a team that spent a good portion of the season ranked in the top 10.
Barnes lamented her team’s lack of a go-to scorer after beating UNLV. It showed against North Carolina as the Wildcats missed shot after shot.
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