Women’s basketball downs UNC

With the win, Wake Forest may have done just enough to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament


(From left to right) Senior Gina Conti, freshman Jewel Spear and junior Christina Morra celebrate after the final buzzer. Spear scored 29 points off of seven made three-pointers, an ACC tournament record.

Essex Thayer, Sports Editor

In a hard-fought battle that at one point had the Demon Deacons on the ropes, Wake Forest found a way to pull out a massive victory against UNC-Chapel Hill. The win may have just been enough to squeeze the Demon Deacons into their first NCAA tournament since 1988. Before the game, Wake Forest was in ESPN’s “First Four Out,” but after the win, they were moved to “Last Four In.”

After a defensive stop to begin the game, freshman Jewel Spear pulled up from behind the three-point line to knock in the Demon Deacons’ first points on the day. Stephanie Watts responded for the Tar Heels, scoring back-to-back buckets. After a three-pointer from senior Ivana Raca, with four minutes remaining in the quarter, Spear once again hit a three, her third of the game, to cap off a 6-0 run. After the score, Wake Forest went into the first TV timeout leading 18-10. Following a layup from junior Christina Morra, UNC opened a short run, with Janelle Bailey and Amanda Utsby scoring four straight points. With under a minute remaining in the quarter, Spear hit her fourth three-pointer of the game. She did not miss a single shot from behind the three-point line in the quarter. As a team, the Demon Deacons shot 5-7 from three, giving them a 25-16 edge at the end of the first period.

The second quarter began inauspiciously for both teams, as UNC and Wake Forest combined for three turnovers on the first three possessions. With 7:45 left on the clock, Spear broke the spell, draining her fifth three-pointer of the game. She went on to score 29 points including seven made threes — an ACC tournament record. Spear drew three defenders to guard her on the following possession, so she found senior Gina Conti behind the three-point line for a shot of her own. Conti’s made three gave Wake Forest a 31-17 lead and forced North Carolina to call a timeout.

Following the break, Deja Kelly stopped the Tar Heels’ bleeding, hitting her own shot for three. Spear’s streak finally came to an end on the next possession, as she missed her first three-point attempt of the game after making her previous five. With roughly half of the quarter remaining, North Carolina began to shift the momentum in their favor. Kelly scored six straight points for the Tar Heels, knocking down a shot from behind the arc and then converting on an and-one opportunity. Raca responded with two consecutive scores for Wake Forest, making it seem as though the Deacs had stopped the push from the Tar Heels. But, the Heels were not done yet, scoring six consecutive points and closing the half on an 8-2 run. After leading by as much as 14, UNC had shrunk the Wake Forest lead to just five.

Utsby started the scoring in the second half by hitting a two-point jumper, bringing UNC within three points. Spear responded with another conversion from behind the arc, her sixth of the day.

From there, the Tar Heels turned on the gas, going on a 12-3 run. That run took them into the lead for the first time since the beginning of the first period. The streak was highlighted by consecutive defensive breakdowns by the Demon Deacons, which allowed Utsby to break free for several easy layups in transition. With the Deacs reeling, Head Coach Jen Hoover called a timeout to settle the team. Out of the timeout, Wake Forest rattled off six consecutive points, including an and-one from Conti that had the Demon Deacon bench, Hoover included, screaming at the top of their lungs in jubilation. Despite UNC finding a way to shove Wake Forest back on their heels, the Demon Deacons were able to regain their momentum and found themselves leading by a slim four-point margin going into the final period.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Utsby converted another layup for the Tar Heels, bringing the deficit to within two, but Spear quickly responded with a make of her own. On the following possession, Conti stole the ball from Utsby and found Scruggs for the finish, forcing North Carolina to call a timeout. Following the timeout, the Tar Heels went on a 6-2 run, shrinking the Wake Forest lead to two points. Sophomore Olivia Summiel brought the Demon Deacon faithful back on their feet with a three-point shot, but Watts quickly responded with a three-pointer herself. With four minutes remaining in regulation, Wake Forest began a 5-0 run that proved to be the final dagger.

Trailing by 11 points with just over a minute left on the clock, North Carolina began to foul Wake Forest, hoping they would miss their shots from the free-throw line. The Demon Deacons did not, converting every free-throw down the stretch. They only missed one free-throw in the entire game.

When the buzzer sounded, the Wake Forest bench erupted, streaming onto the court in celebration. The win gave much power to Wake Forest’s tournament hopes, a hump they have not gotten over since 1988 when Hoover herself was a player on the team. With the win possibly sending the Demon Deacons back to the dance, Hoover hit another important milestone: 126 wins — the most in program history. After the game, she was awarded with a Gatorade shower in the locker room and the game ball by Athletic Director John Currie.

In the postgame press conference, tears streamed down Hoover’s face.

“I think this win meant the world to us, especially coming off of what we went through just with such a rough trip last week to Florida,” Hoover said. “This team has this kind of grit, [a real] spirit about them.”

With North Carolina projected as a No. 9 seed in the tournament, Hoover believed that the win had solidified their March Madness bid.

“I felt we were an NCAA [tournament] team from the get-go. There’s no way they can take [North Carolina] after what we’ve done to them twice this year without taking the Deacs, bottom line,” she said.

After defeating North Carolina, Wake Forest went on to lose to Louisville in the quarterfinals. The Cardinals advanced all the way to the championship game, where they lost to NC State.

After a week off, the Demon Deacons will find out if they secured an at-large tournament bid on March 15. After the Louisville loss, Hoover spoke about what it will feel like to watch the selection show.

“We’ve never been able to sit here and be anxious for that selection show, and this group deserves that, and we’re excited for it,” she said, “We’ve just got to be ready so that when we get in, we can win a game in the tournament. It’s not just about getting in, it’s about winning.”

Hoover ended the postgame conference by touching on her feelings about the NCAA tournament.

“It’s March Madness. It’s a phenomenal feeling. [Making the tournament] was my vision when I came back to Wake. Let’s go, Deacs. Let’s go.”