Sunday, November 22, 2009

UNLV women fall to No. 4 North Carolina

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009 | 8:11 p.m.

They were shorter, smaller and less celebrated. They got pushed around and they got knocked down but Sunday afternoon, the UNLV Lady Rebels stuck around.

They hung around for 40 minutes against the No. 4 team in the country and its hometown star – the North Carolina Tar Heels and Italee Lucas – and in the end, the Lady Rebels weren’t content with their 78-68 loss.

“Right after the jump ball, we knew we could play with them,” junior guard Erica Helms said. “We weren’t really intimidated by them at all and we just took it to them the entire game.”

The Tar Heels led from start to finish, thanks in large part to the offensive prowess of their starting guards, but what appeared to be a breeze of a game coming in for North Carolina turned into a dogfight with UNLV’s scrappy play.

“Even though they are No. 4, we felt like we were in it the whole time,” Helms said.

After a rocky start forced the Lady Rebels into double-digit deficits for much of the first half, the team took off late in the first half when North Carolina claimed its biggest lead of the game, going up by 16 points at the nine-minute mark of the first half.

UNLV responded to the deficit by rattling off nine straight points, eventually cutting the lead to five at halftime as the 1,667 in attendance at Cox Pavilion rose to their feet.

“We were battling,” UNLV head coach Kathy Olivier said. “We fought, we competed and we never laid down. When they did make their runs, we stayed together as a group and that was really important.”

While the first half ended on a high note for UNLV, the second half began on a low note, as North Carolina stormed out of halftime on a 7-0 run, extending its lead to 12.

With just under eight minutes left to play and the lead still at 12, the Lady Rebels went on another run to close the gap.

They were crashing the boards, and the second-largest crowd in Cox Pavilion history was again heating up as Mia Bell and Jamie Smith hit 3-pointers to pull within five points with just over four minutes to play.

But North Carolina’s athleticism was too much to handle in the waning moments of the game, and Lucas’ one-handed baseline layup put the Tar Heels up eight healthy points with just over a minute left to play, spelling UNLV’s demise.

“I learned a lot about our team tonight,” Smith said. “We can line up against any opponent, play our hardest and compete with them, but we’re not content with coming up short and this is where we need to improve.”

Smith finished with a double-double of 17 points and 18 rebounds for her third double-double in the season’s first four games, leading the Mountain West Conference.

Her 18 rebounds were a career-high for the sophomore forward.

“We’re not satisfied but we’re proud,” Smith said. “This will give us a lot of confidence but we can’t hang onto this game and relax. We need to head into next practice and work even harder.”

North Carolina junior shooting guard and Centennial High graduate Lucas led all scorers with 24 points, while backcourt mate Cetera DeGraffenreid cashed in 22 points and went a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line.

The game was the first of a home-and-home series between the Rebels and Tar Heels and it was the second time a Top 10 team had traveled to Cox Pavilion. The last was the 2004-05 North Carolina team that beat UNLV 84-76.

UNLV is now 2-2 and hosts Boise State on Saturday in the Lady Rebel Round-Up.

“We didn’t execute to the best of our abilities but we’re learning in these kinds of games,” Olivier said. “This is a really good group to work with but I don’t think they’re content inside the locker room, and that’s a good thing.”

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