CHAPEL HILL -- The North Carolina Tar Heels defeated the Minnesota Gophers 72-69 on Monday night to advance to the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet 16."
The trip to the next round, however, did not come easy as the Gophers played inspired and almost became the second non-conference team to win in Carmichael Auditorium since 1992.
Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen justified her All-American status, opening up the game scoring 11 of her team's first 18 points. With Whalen hitting deep threes and center Janel McCarville owning the low block, the Gophers went on a 17-2 run, and led 18-5 with 13:30 remaining in the first half. Carolina missed a few open looks, had a couple of turnovers, and just looked flat.
"[During the run in the 1st half] I was trying to keep the kids settled down," UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "Myself and the assistant coaches were just trying to help them make adjustments."
The Tar Heels game plan to recover was simple. Get the ball to Candace Sutton. UNC's sophomore center had five inches on the Gophers' tallest player. The Heels pounded the ball inside to her and Sutton attempted 12 shots in the first half, however she was only able to connect on four of them.
Gradually, Carolina fought their way back, with 5:00 remaining in the 1st half the lead was cut to five at 29-24.
That's when Nikki Teasley stepped up and took the game over. In the last three minutes of the half Teasley recorded the Tar Heels final seven points including a pull up jumper with 15 seconds remaining in the half.
North Carolina still trailed 37-36 at the half.
The second half started eerily similar to the first half. Whalen and the Gophers connected on three straight three pointers to stretch their lead to 46-39, just two minutes into the second half.
"We were hitting shots which just set the tone. I was very pleased with the start of both halves," Whalen said.
North Carolina would have to fight their way back into the game once again. "We played with a lot of heart, and just continued to battle," Hatchell said. "In that type of game, it comes down to every possession."
The Heels once again turned to their veteran leader Teasley for a spark. She provided six quick points to get the Heels within three, at 50-47, with 14:50 remaining.
After connecting on one of two technical free throws from a technical on the Minnesota bench, Teasley tied the game 50-50.
At the 13:00 minute mark the complexion of the game changed, as McCarville committed her fourth foul, and was forced to sit down. From there, once again, Whalen caught fire connecting on two straight lay-ups, to push the Minnesota lead back up to five.
"[She] is a great player, hats off to her," Sutton said of McCarville. "When she picked up her fourth foul, it made things a little easier inside."
North Carolina seemed rattled, as they missed four consecutive shots without Teasley, who was taken to the locker room with a jammed finger.
"When Nikki went out, I was just thinking she needs to hurry up and get back out here," Coretta Brown said.
With Teasley out, Tar Heel reserve forward Chrystal Baptist stepped up and gave the Heels energy off the bench. Baptist finished with a double-double -- 12 points and 10 rebounds.
"We really wanted to make some other players beside the dynamic guard duo [Teasley & Brown] step up," said Gophers Head Coach Brenda Oldfield. "We didn't anticipate [Baptist] having that kind of game."
Finally with 10:00 remaining the Heels took their first lead since 5-4, going up 57-55 on a Nikita Bell three pointer. Teasley returned with 9:00 left in the 2nd half.
For the rest of the half the teams battled back and forth on every possession. Coretta Brown connected on consecutive threes to keep the Heels close, then Teasley hit a three and gave the UNC a 66-65 lead with 5:00 remaining in the game.
At this point the Heels stepped up their defense, trying, often in vain, to deny Whalen the ball.
Over the next three minutes there were four lead changes, with UNC taking a lead they would never surrender on a Sutton lay-up assisted by Teasley with 1:25 remaining.
On the Heels final possession Teasley held the ball at the top of the key, drove down the lane and put up a two pointer as the shot clock expired.
The shot didn't fall, but Baptist connected on the put back, giving the Carolina a 72-69 lead.
On the other end a Whalen three-pointer fell short and North Carolina headed to their ninth Regional Semi-final in the last 11 years.
"The Sweet 16 is nice, and we are happy, but we want more than the Sweet 16," Hatchell said.
Teasley echoing her coach's sentiments said, "We're happy but we're not content. Our goal is to reach the Final Four."
With a raucous crowd chanting "Nikki Teasley," the senior guard kissed the floor, and was hoisted up in the air by her teammates.
While her career at Carmichael Auditorium is over, her senior campaign is not.
The Heels will travel to Ames, Iowa next weekend to take on the No. 1 seeded Vanderbilt Commodores, who crushed Arizona State, 61-35.