CHAPEL HILL – Over the past month, North Carolina junior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has spent extra hours in the gym shooting from all angles on the basketball court, launching 1,000 shot per week.
“I’ve been missing a lot of easy shots,” she said. “So just getting in the gym, shooting those shots that I miss over and over and over has helped them go in.”
That repetition resulted in a spectacular afternoon for the 5-foot-10 guard on Sunday as she scored a career-high 23 points in leading the Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC) to a rough-and-tumble 68-59 victory over ACC rival N.C. State (15-13, 4-10) before an announced crowd of 3,853 at Carmichael Arena.
The Heels relied on Ruffin-Pratt, junior center Waltiea Rolle and long-armed defense to capture its second conference win after dropping three consecutive.
Ruffin-Pratt and Rolle had played in just half of the team’s games this season. With senior center Chay Shegog picking up three fouls early in the first half, Rolle came off the bench to score 12 points, grabbed three rebounds and block five shots – her best effort since returning to the team Dec. 29 after giving birth to her daughter in November.
“Thanks to the coaches, I am in better shape now,” said Rolle, who has dropped 20 pounds.
Ruffin-Pratt returned to the team on Jan. 5 after missing 13 games recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. She scored 13 of her points in the first half on Sunday and finished with 11 rebounds and two assists, providing the offensive aggression the Heels needed to overcome a plucky yet poor shooting N.C. State team.
“Our field goal percentage was too low to win games in the ACC,” said N.C. State coach Kellie Harper, whose team shot 20.6 percent in the first half and 26.4 overall.
N.C. State also committed 19 turnovers, which UNC converted into 22 points.
The Heels, who in recent weeks have fallen from the national polls, followed a close victory over Florida State on Wednesday with a convincing victory over the Wolfpack, which dropped its fifth consecutive conference game.
UNC outrebounded N.C. State 43-39, posted 12 blocks and shot 46.2 percent from the field.
The Heels surged to an 18-point lead with four minutes, 57 second left on a layup by Shegog. But the Pack responded with three consecutive 3-pointers and cut the lead to nine points.
“That was a big game for us because N.C. State plays so hard,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “We knew N.C. State was going to play really hard, because they always do. They made some big 3[-pointers]down the stretch there but it’s really good to be at 19 wins now.”
The Heels have two games remaining on the regular season schedule against No. 8 Maryland (Feb. 24) and No. 5 Duke (Feb. 26).
Hatchell said her team defended well, using their arm length and height advantage to frustrate the Pack. She said her team, which has turned in some less-than-stellar performances, has to maintain its health and continue to develop into the post-season.
“Keep playing hard and keep learning,” Hatchell said. “And realizing that we haven’t reached our potential.”
With five lead changes in the first half, the Heels pulled ahead on a jump shot by Ruffin-Pratt at the 11 minute, 26 seconds mark. She ignited a 16-5 run and helped her team carry a 33-21 lead into halftime.
Ruffin-Pratt has dealt with nagging shoulder injuries since she was a high school senior in Alexandria, Va.
For two seasons at North Carolina, she wore bulky braces on both shoulders. She returned to the roster healthy.
On Sunday, Ruffin-Pratt showed no signs of pain, making 8 of 14 shot attempts from the field. She found her way to the basket with strong drives and drained several open jump shots – lifting her unsatisfactory 28.1 shooting percentage.
Ruffin-Pratt also made 7 of 8 free throw attempts, a result of her aggressive drives. With a 1:40 left, she sliced into the lane for a layup. Shortly thereafter, she was fouled and made two free throws to give the Heels a 68-57 lead after the Pack had once again whittled the lead to nine points.
Ruffin-Pratt has big plans for her game.
“It’s just going to get better and better as the season goes on,” she said.