UNC women outlast Albany
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell walked into the interview room, took a seat and summed up her team's feelings in two words: "We survived."
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored a career-high 30 points, and the third-seeded Tar Heels squeezed past Albany 59-54 Sunday to stagger into the second round of the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina trailed 28-23 at halftime and 48-44 with just under 10 minutes left before rallying behind Ruffin-Pratt, who scored 17 of the Tar Heels' final 21 points — including two clinching free throws with 10.8 seconds left.
"I just didn't want to go home tonight," the 5-foot-10 senior said.
Waltiea Rolle had 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots for North Carolina (29-6), which moves on to a matchup with sixth-seeded Delaware (31-3). Delaware advanced with a 66-53 win over West Virginia.
"We're looking forward to playing Tuesday night," Hatchell said. "Hopefully, we'll play a little better."
After watching the Tar Heels get outhustled and outrebounded in the first half, Hatchell warned her players that a similar effort over the final 20 minutes wouldn't be acceptable.
"I challenged the seniors, each one of them, to step up," Hatchell said. "I thought rebounding was terrible and we had to play with more intensity. I told them, 'Do you want your season to end like this? Do you want to go home tonight? You'd better step it up.'"
Megan Craig scored 12 points, and Ebone Henry and Lindsey Lowrie each had 11 for Albany (27-4), the American East champions. The 14th-seeded Great Danes came in with a 19-game winning streak, and nearly made it an even 20 against the second-place finisher in the UNC.
"Pretty amazing, huh?" Coach Katie Abrahmson-Henderson said. "I'm just proud of them. We wouldn't go away. We did everything they needed to do. We missed a few wide-open shots in the end ... and then down the stretch, No. 44 just carried them."
That would be Ruffin-Pratt, who went 10 for 24 from the floor, 7 for 11 at the line and also had a team-high five steals.
"She just carried that team today all by herself," Abrahmson-Henderson said.
What made Ruffin-Pratt's performance even more impressive was she picked up her fourth foul with 9:39 left.
"I just played bold," she said. "I just kept playing as hard as I could. It really didn't stop me from being aggressive. I kept driving to the basket."
UNC trailed 42-36 before Ruffin-Pratt scored six points in an 8-2 spree that tied it at 44 with just over 10 minutes left.
Albany wouldn't blink. After Shereesha Richards made one of two free throws, Henry was fouled while scoring on a pretty back-door play, then added the foul shot for a 48-44 lead.
Ruffin-Pratt then rattled off seven straight points to put the Tar Heels up 51-48, and although Albany had several chances to pull even, the Tar Heels never relinquished the lead.
It was 56-54 when Henry stepped out of bounds with 47 seconds left. Rolle made a free throw on the other end, and Ruffin-Pratt clinched it with two shots at the line after she missed a pair.
"We deserved to win that game, and I think everyone in the (interview) room knows that," Abrahmson-Henderson said. "North Carolina knows that, too. I respect the North Carolina coach a lot, but after the game she looked at me like, whew."
That didn't make the loss any easier to take. Albany forward Julie Forster, who missed eight of her 10 field-goal tries, had red, puffy eyes when her voice cracked as she tried to speak after playing her final college game.
"They need to be proud," Abrahmson-Henderson said of her seniors. "Their heads need to be up."
Albany led by as many as seven points in the first half before settling for a 28-23 advantage at the break. The Great Danes limited North Carolina to 7-for-26 shooting from the floor and used their quickness to build a 24-15 rebounding edge — eight of which came on the offensive glass.
UNC 59, Albany 54
Percentages: FG .279, FT .682. 3-Point Goals: 5-26, .192 (Lowrie 3-12, Henry 2-10, Royals 0-2, Rosario 0-2). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 1 (Craig). Turnovers: 22 (Royals 7, Forster 6, Richards 4, Lowrie 2, Henry 2). Steals: 7 (Henry 2, Richards 2, Rosario, Keya. Williams, Royals).
Percentages: FG .345, FT .654. 3-Point Goals: 4-17, .235 (Ruffin-Pratt 3-5, Rountree 1-5, Gross 0-1, McDaniel 0-1, Butts 0-1, Buckland 0-4). Team Rebounds: 1. Blocked Shots: 9 (Rolle 8, Gross). Turnovers: 20 (Rolle 5, McDaniel 4, Ruffin-Pratt 4, Buckland 2, Butts 2, Bryant, Rountree). Steals: 11 (Ruffin-Pratt 5, Butts 2, Rolle 2, McDaniel, Buckland). Technical Fouls: Ruffin-Pratt.
A—4,532. Officials—Eric Brewton, Kathleen Lynch, Angela Lewis.