UNC Women’s Basketball Fights, Uses Defensive Intensity To Upset Irish

The UNC Women's Basketball program put their undefeated ACC record on the line Sunday evening, again coming out victorious over a top-25 foe.
2023 Invesco QQQ Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase - Connecticut v North Carolina
2023 Invesco QQQ Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase - Connecticut v North Carolina / G Fiume/GettyImages

The UNC Women's Basketball program was coming off its biggest win of the season after a 75-51 shellacking of No. 25 Syracuse in Carmichael Arena this past week. The Tar Heels reward? To travel on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference for an even tougher test: at No. 16 Notre Dame.

North Carolina got off to a great start in South Bend, jumping out to a 6-0 lead and allowing the Fighting Irish just two points in the first 3:36 of the game. The Tar Heels stretched the lead out by as many as ten points in the first period with an 18-8 lead, and eventually leading 20-12 at the end of the quarter.

Notre Dame wouldn't go away easily, as no one thought a top-25 team playing in its home arena would. The Irish, behind an 8-0 run in the second quarter, outscored the Tar Heels 16-11 to cut the once ten-point deficit down to just three at the halftime break as North Carolina led 31-28.

Lexi Donarski scored ten points for the Tar Heels, including two threes, while Maria Gadkeng contributed six points. Notre Dame was led by Hannah Hildago and Sonia Citron with ten and seven points respectively. It was Citron's first game back since suffering an injury during the third game of the season versus Northwestern.

Through the intermission, it felt like the UNC Women's Basketball team should've been up more, given their performance. However, a poor performance at the free throw line and a great one from Notre Dame kept the Irish in it. The Tar Heels shot 45% from the field in the first half and 42.9% from three-point range to just 29% and 12.5% for Notre Dame. However, the Irish were 9-11 from the charity stripe in the first twenty minutes, while North Carolina was 0-4.

As expected, Notre Dame's efficient offense wouldn't struggle for the entire game. As they did in the second quarter, the Irish put together another scoring run, this time 11-2, to outscore the Tar Heels 18-14 in the third quarter and flipped the three-point halftime deficit to a one-point Notre Dame lead at 46-45.

Donarski, as she did in the first half, continued to prove why she was such a huge addition for Courtney Banghart in the transfer portal this off-season. Her three-pointer to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter was crucial in keeping the Tar Heels close headed into the final ten minutes of regulation.

Indya Nivar gave the Tar Heels a huge spark to begin the fourth quarter, scoring the first seven points of the period, including converting an "and-one" layup and giving North Carolina a 52-46 lead with 6:48 remaining. Nivar also spearheaded the UNC Women's Basketball aggressive defense by coming up with five steals.

Notre Dame's first basket of the final period came at 5:47 on a three-pointer to cut the deficit back to five at 54-49. What appeared to be a game-changing moment came at 3:41 remaining in the third quarter, with North Carolina holding a 55-53 lead and the ball. A technical foul was given to Deja Kelly for tripping, allowing the Irish two shots and the ball.

Notre Dame converted the free throws to tie the game at 55 but couldn't capitalize on the ensuing possession. The Tar Heels took advantage of the Irish's missed opportunity to grab control of the game. Gadkeng gave North Carolina the lead for good on a free throw with 2:44 remaining for a 56-55 lead, and Nivar followed it up a minute later with a contested layup for a 58-55 lead with 1:40 remaining.

North Carolina dug deep over the final 3:41 and relied on what they have done under the entirety of the Courtney Banghart Era, and that's defensive intensity. Gadkeng came up with a block to seal the game with 19 seconds remaining. Nivar and Donarski added three free throws in the final seconds, and a meaningless two-pointer from Notre Dame at the buzzer secured the 61-57 victory.

The Fighting Irish entered the day averaging 87.4 points per game and shooting 49.2% from the field, and the UNC Women's Basketball team held them to 30 points below their average and just 31.1% shooting to pick up the program's first-ever win in South Bend (the Tar Heels entered tonight 0-5).

This team entered last week feeling disrespected after being dropped from the AP Top 25 after two Power Five wins. How did the Tar Heels respond? With two impressive wins against the top 25 programs and moving to 3-0 in the ACC. The road doesn't get easier, as the Tar Heels will travel to another top-25 opponent next week at No. 22 Florida State on Thursday, January 11th.

Next. UNC Basketball: 3 players primed to level up in conference play. UNC Basketball: 3 players primed to level up in conference play. dark

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