CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Latifah Coleman and Allisha Gray weren’t going to let Sylvia Hatchell’s return to the NCAA Tournament end so soon.
Gray scored 17 points and Coleman had 15 to lead North Carolina past Liberty 71-65 on Saturday in the first round of the Greensboro Region.
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels (25-8) shot 49 percent, led by 14 and withstood the Flames’ late push to give their Hall of Fame coach a victory in her return to the NCAA Tournament after a year away to fight leukemia.
“This whole week, I have been so stressed out,” Hatchell said. “It’s a good stressed because I’m so excited about the tournament.”
Ashley Rininger had 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Flames (26-7), who were trying to become the second No. 13 seed to win a tournament game.
They chipped away at North Carolina’s lead down the stretch, pulling to 65-59 on Jaymee Fisher-Davis’ 3-pointer with 1:02 left.
Coleman followed with a driving layup with 40.5 seconds to play before Emily Frazier hit a free throw with 26.9 seconds remaining to make it a seven-point game.
Brittany Rountree made it 69-60 with two free throws with 25.2 seconds left.
“Tournament time, you’ve got to keep going, keep punching,” Coleman said. “We just had confidence in each other that we were going to win this game. Our motto for this tournament is ‘finish,’ and that’s what we were trying to do.”
Fisher-Davis hit another 3 with 13.3 seconds left before Gray stuck back Coleman’s missed free throw with 10.9 seconds to play.
“I think all of us felt it,” Frazier said. “We knew we had to battle every single time, every single board. … We kind of saw that coming together in that stretch. We just didn’t capitalize.”
Stephanie Mavunga added 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting for North Carolina, which will play fifth-seeded Ohio State on Monday night with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
The Tar Heels have reached the regional semifinals in 14 of their past 19 NCAA Tournament appearances — including last year under the guidance of associate head coach Andrew Calder, who filled in for Hatchell while she stepped away.
“Every time we think about the tournament and last year, we get filled with emotion,” Coleman said. “Having coach Hatchell is back great. … There’s more purpose behind what we do and why we do it.”
Added Mavunga: “She’s like a mama bear.”
Karly Buer had 14 points for Liberty, which had its 14-game winning streak snapped. The Flames — making their 16th NCAA appearance in 19 years — were denied both their first NCAA Tournament victory and their first win over a Top 25 opponent since 2005.
“Right now we’re on top of the wave and we’ll see how that turns out,” coach Carey Green said of the exposure the tournament brings. “If you’re not in the dance, if you’re not in the 64, nobody sees you.”
North Carolina hadn’t been outrebounded this badly all season. Liberty held a 52-35 advantage on the boards — the widest margin of the season for a UNC team that had been outrebounded eight times in its last 10 games but only once by more than eight. “I don’t know what words, how you could describe” the rebounding, Hatchell said. “It was pretty bad.”
Liberty: The Flames, who shoot 30 percent from 3-point range, missed their first 14 attempts from beyond the arc before Buer hit one with 4
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