North Carolina is returning close to home at Greensboro, N.C., to play in the Sweet 16 after Arizona could not gain any momentum until it was too late in their home, McKale Center, on Monday night.
The fifth-seeded Tar Heels, behind an 18-0 run in the first half when No. 4 Arizona missed 13 consecutive shots, defeated Arizona 63-45 in the NCAA tournament second-round game.
North Carolina (25-6) advances to play top-seeded South Carolina (31-2) in Greensboro in the Sweet 16 on Friday.
Arizona ends its season 21-8 in what was fifth-year senior Sam Thomas’ last game at McKale Center. Thomas can look back fondly on her career, making it tp the championship game last year after winning the WNIT title in 2018-19, and then finally being able to play at home in the NCAA tournament after COVID-19 wrecked that chance the last two years.
“Becoming who I am academically off the court and on the court, and then just last year with the run we had and this year making it to the tournament and then obviously learning everything I did from Adia and this team it’s been an incredible time.”
Thomas had a tearful embrace with Cate Reese at midcourt after the game and walked toward the locker room in front of a standing and cheering McKale Center crowd.
“I’ve lived with her for the last three years; she’s like family to me now,” Thomas said of Reese. “I just felt it was a great relationship with her. Obviously seeing Cate cry it’s going to make me cry. I was trying to hold it in the best I could.”
The Wildcats scored eight unanswered points, six by Thomas, to cut the lead to 54-41 with 3:43 remaining.
Arizona did not make another shot from the field until Taylor Chavez’s 3-pointer as the final buzzer sounded. North Carolina subdued the Wildcats by making six free throws and Carlie Littlefied hit a 3-pointer to help the Tar Heels pull away.
Thomas, who finished with a team-high 15 points, was responsible for ending Arizona’s devastating cold spell in the first half.
The Wildcats went through a 12:07 stretch without scoring or making a field goal.
They missed 13 consecutive shots before Thomas made a 3-pointer with 3:52 left in second quarter. North Carolina led 23-12 at that point.
“With the personnel we’re starting we have to be on point really good defensively because I know offensively, we’re limited,” Adia Barnes said. “We couldn’t get stops. I mean, we we had a couple of keys to the game. First key was transition defense, which in the first five minutes of the game, they’re streaming down the floor … to me early on, we weren’t focused or we were maybe nervous.”
North Carolina forwards Anya Poole and Kennedy Todd-Williams combined to make 7-of-10 shots for 15 points in the first half, leading the Tar Heels to a 28-17 lead at halftime.
At that point, the duo nearly outscored the Wildcats, who were 6 of 26 from the field in the first half.
Arizona loses to North Carolina 63-45 but Sam Thomas leaves a winner. pic.twitter.com/oXvPjZN0hH
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 22, 2022
“Our theme was building a wall and that’s what we did,” North Carolina All-ACC pick Deja Kelly said of North Carolina’s defense against Arizona, which shot 28 percent from the field.
The 11-point deficit at halftime was Arizona’s largest since the Wildcats trailed 41-33 at Stanford on Jan. 30.
North Carolina increased its lead to 47-27 at the end of the third quarter behind Kelly’s eight points, including a 3-point play as time expired.
Todd-Williams made all three of her shots in the quarter, including a 3-pointer, to help the Tar Heels gain separation.
Arizona shot only 23.5 percent from the quarter in which it needed to come out hot to get back in the game. The Wildcats were 4 of 17 from the field, 0 of 5 from 3-point range.
Bendu Yeaney was the only other scorer in double figures in the game for Arizona with 10 points.
“This is a bitter moment with Sam’s leaving,” Yeaney said. “It sucks that I’m not gonna be able to be on the court with her again. But for the freshmen coming in next year, they’ve gotta be ready and everybody who is coming back, they also have to be ready because I’m hungry. I want our team to be hungry.”
The Wildcats finished making 28.8 percent of their shots against North Carolina, including a 7-of-27 performance from 3-point range.
Shaina Pellington, coming off a 30-point game against UNLV on Saturday, finished with three points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field.
Todd-Thomas, 6-foot, was placed mostly on Pellington, 5-8, because of her quick feet and length.
“She’s a great player and we locked in. Everybody stayed connected and we built that wall, for sure,” Kelly said of Pellington.
Todd-Williams matched her career-high with 19 points while Kelly finished with 15.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.