CHAPEL HILL -- Before each North Carolina women’s basketball game, players throw T-shirts into the stands for fans. Continuing the tradition on Sunday, senior Italee Lucas ran down court and launched a rolled up shirt toward the band, only to have her toss ricochet off the glass back board and fall way off the mark.
That moment served as a harbinger for Lucas, the team’s leading scorer and resident sharp-shooter, as well as for other Tar Heels who shot a miserable, season-low 35.4 percent from the field – 1 for 15 from 3-point range – against UNLV at Carmichael Arena.
Shooting poorly and trailing at halftime for the first time this season, the No. 12 Heels (10-0) responded with steals, fastbreak layups and free throws, needing all of those elements to push past the Rebels (5-3) in the second half for a 78-66 victory before an announced crowd of 2,403.
“We had to fight back on defense,” UNC senior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. “If your shot’s not falling ... you have to find it elsewhere. ... Coach [Sylvia Hatchell] kept telling us to get the ball inside, get the ball inside. We started doing that and that’s when Jesscia [Breland] picked it up for us.”
Lucas struggled from the floor, shooting 6-for-19 for a season-low 16 points, but Breland stepped in and delivered a season-high 24 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 28 minutes.
Breland lifted the Heels during the game’s critical second-half stretch, scoring 13 points over the final five minutes to carry her team on a 15-9 run to close out the Rebels.
The Heels took a 72-63 lead on a three-point play by Breland, who made a jumper at the elbow and made a free throw after she was fouled with 1 minute, 4 seconds remaining.
“I think we saw what difference Breland can make,” Hatchell said. “A game like this last year would probably have gone the other way.”
Breland sat out last season as she recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the Heels finished with a 19-12 record. With her cancer in remission, the 6-foot-3 forward has returned to a full-time starting role, averaging 11.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 20.9 minutes per game.
Breland, a national player of the year candidate, knocked down the mid-range jumpers she’s known for and attacked the basket in the second half, displaying a familiar touch that has been absent in several games this season.
“I knew that my team needed me,” Breland said. “I knew that if I could get a spark going – one spark could start a fire.”
Her effort set the Rebels aflame.
“She makes the game look easy,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. “We really didn’t have an answer for her.”
DeGraffenreid, who is second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, controlled the second half with smart decisions, finishing with 11 points, seven assists, five steals and one turnover.
The Rebels won the rebounding contest 43-34, but committed 34 turnovers, which the Heels converted into 24 points.
But the difference was Breland, who said she felt like her old self while playing extended minutes.
“I kind of got into the flow of the game,” Breland said. “I’ve been working on just letting it come to me and doing whatever my team needs me to do. ... Some times I think about passing it too much instead of attacking a lot. I have a problem with being too giving. I want to pass it to my teammates when I see them open. They’ve just told me to catch-and-shoot and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”