CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Pitt’s women’s basketball team just couldn’t shake No. 23 North Carolina in the first half. The Tar Heels were like gnats at a barbecue; they were all up in the Panthers’ faces, annoying the heck out of them and forcing them into mistakes. And wherever Pitt wanted to go – particularly the glass and the three-point arc – North Carolina was there first.
Despite Jayla Everett’s game-high 18 points, Pitt fell to North Carolina 64-54 on Thursday at Carmichael Arena. The Tar Heels forced the Panthers into 22 turnovers, and made their way to the free throw line 26 times compared to just four trips for Pitt.
North Carolina led wire-to-wire, and its 16-point lead at halftime proved to be too big for the Panthers to overcome. Though, it should be mentioned, Pitt played much better in the second half, outscoring the Tar Heels 36-30 over the final two quarters.
With the loss, Pitt’s record was adjusted to 11-12 overall on the season. It’s the first time this campaign that Lance White’s side has fallen below .500. The Panthers have a 2-10 record so far in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
“Losing is always hard. It breaks your confidence,” White said. “In the ACC every night, it’s a hard game. You have to play ugly and scrap around. We still have too many possessions that we don’t execute, and that costs you against a good team.”
North Carolina (19-4, 9-4) jumped out in front early with a 12-2 run from the opening tip. UNC would later grow its lead to as many as 22 points in the third quarter. Deja Kelly led the way for the Tar Heels with 17 points, while Alyssa Ustby notched her 10th double-double of the season with 10 points and 12 boards. Eva Hodgson chipped in 14 points off the bench.
The Panthers were able to cut the deficit to just seven points using a 10-0 run to start the fourth quarter – a stretch in which Amber Brown had four points and three boards – but the Tar Heels responded, padded their lead and sealed the victory.
“We played defense better in the second half. We kind of flipped the switch,” Brown said.
Brown finished the game with 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting, along with six rebounds. Dayshanette Harris, before fouling out with 1:09 to play, chipped in 10 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Pitt’s defense remained solid, as it held UNC to an 32.2% shooting mark on field goals. Pitt has held all 23 of its opponents to under 45% shooting this season, and it’s one of just three teams nationally to do that, joining South Carolina and Georgia Tech. UNC is the 15th opponent Pitt has held to less than 40% shooting.
One area that Pitt is typically strong in is rebounding, but they were beaten on the glass Thursday night by a 43-36 margin. At halftime, UNC had a 27-14 advantage on the boards.
“The whole game we defended them pretty well, I thought, and were able to keep them out of some of their strengths,” White said. “The second half, we were able to keep them off the glass better, and that changes everything. We defended them well in the first half, but gave them those second and third chances… Points off that, that’s the difference of the game in the first half.”
Entering this game Pitt led the ACC and ranked eighth nationally in rebounds per-game with 45.3. The Panthers’ 36 rebounds on Thursday in Chapel Hill were the second lowest they have grabbed in a single game this season.
“It was extremely rough in the paint. That caught us off-guard a little bit. And our guards didn’t rebound very well,” White said. “We were really concerned about their transition offense, so our guards were having to get back.”
Pitt also had just eight offensive rebounds, tied for its lowest of the season. The Panthers’ first offensive rebound didn’t come until 90 seconds into the third quarter, when Rita Igbokwe grabbed a teammate’s miss and put it back up.
Meanwhile, North Carolina grabbed 17 offensive boards, and outscored Pitt 16-15 on second-chance points. For UNC, 12 of those second-chance points came in the first half.
Igbokwe finished the game with seven points, seven rebounds, five blocks, two steals and two assists. Over her last five games, she’s averaging seven points, 10 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per-game while shooting 50% from the floor.
“Rita means everything. She helps us a lot,” Brown said. “People know that she has a presence down there, so they think twice about coming down there.”
Despite the defeat, there are positives that Pitt can take away from this game. A few years ago, this Panthers team – playing a ranked team on the road – would’ve likely folded after trailing by double-digits. In the second half, they outplayed North Carolina and showed real fight. It wasn’t quite enough to change the result on the scoreboard, but it shows that under White, the Panthers have matured.
Pitt will aim to take that scrappy spirit into its next contest, when it hosts Syracuse on Sunday. The Panthers will be trying to snap this losing streak and avenge an earlier loss to the Orange this season.
“We just have to stay focused and remember that this is bigger than just one little game,” Everett said. “We’ve come a far way. So, we just have to keep believing in each other.”