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UNC continues mastery of Wolfpack

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)

Sylvia Hatchell has repeatedly said that her North Carolina squad would get better as the season goes on. The ninth-ranked Tar Heels look as though they're doing exactly that - and just in time for the postseason. Italee Lucas scored 16 points to help North Carolina beat North Carolina State 74-57 on Monday night, giving the Tar Heels their third straight victory. Cetera DeGraffenreid and Jessica Breland each added 14 for the Tar Heels (24-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), who ran out to an early double-digit lead and never trailed to earn their 17th win in 19 meetings with their nearby rival. They led by as many as 19 in the second half before earning their seventh win in the past eight games, with the past three victories coming by double-digit margins. Their only loss came at league-leading Florida State, and last month's three-game losing streak looks distant with the ACC tournament only a week away. Just before that skid, N.C. State (12-15, 4-8) took the then-unbeaten and second-ranked Tar Heels to overtime before falling 75-66 in a game that gave Hatchell her 800th career victory. There wasn't much drama this time around. "I think our defense is a little bit better," Hatchell said. "But also I think our decision-making and transition game has gotten a lot better because we've played a lot more games since then. We know each other better and we're making better reads in our motion offense. I just think there's a lot of areas we've gotten better in." North Carolina's shot selection might best illustrate Hatchell's point. In that first meeting, North Carolina shot 36 percent from the field and went 2-for-23 from 3-point range. This time around, North Carolina shot 49 percent and attempted only nine shots from behind the arc. Five players scored in double figures for the Tar Heels, who also hit 23 of 27 free throws as they repeatedly attacked the paint. "We play our best basketball when we play as a team," said senior Rashanda McCants, who had 13 points and scored her 1,500th career point in the first half. "Sometimes we're a little selfish, and when we talk to each other and let each other know it's team basketball, then we can (pull) away from the opponent. It happens every time. It's pass the ball and get the assist, and incredible shots get made and people get going." Freshman Bonae Holston led N.C. State with 15 points, her second strong performance against the Tar Heels. She had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the first meeting. But leading scorer Shayla Fields struggled all night, while the Wolfpack shot just 31 percent from the field and 2-for-15 from 3-point range. Plenty of those misses turned into transition opportunities for the always-ready-to-run Tar Heels. Wolfpack interim coach Stephanie Glance said her players let their missed shots get to them mentally, which ultimately hindered them at the other end of the floor. "We started off getting really good shots," Glance said. "We just didn't hit, so now Carolina is off to the races in their transition. We just were a step off tonight. Everything was a step slow." N.C. State had won three straight games, including an upset of then-No. 17 Virginia in the annual "Hoops 4 Hope" game inspired by late coach Kay Yow to raise cancer awareness. The Wolfpack was coming off a 65-63 overtime win at Wake Forest in which Nikitta Gartrell hit a 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds to play. But the Tar Heels didn't give the Wolfpack much chance for an upset, jumping to a 17-5 lead in the first 6 1/2 minutes. Then, after N.C. State answered with a 9-0 spurt, the Tar Heels scored on six straight possessions to push the margin back to double figures. The half ended with Chay Shegog grabbing a defensive rebound and firing the ball out near midcourt to Lucas, who raced in for the uncontested layup just before the horn that made it 35-23 at the break. Things didn't get much better for N.C. State after halftime. The Wolfpack got the lead to single digits only once when Fields was fouled on a 3-pointer and hit all three free throws, making it 53-44 with 9:08 left. The Tar Heels answered with a layup and a jumper from Shegog, then a hanging jumper from Lucas in transition. DeGraffenreid followed that by driving into the paint for a layup and a foul, a three-point play that made it 62-44 with 5:31 left. Fields, who came in averaging about 18 points per game, finished with 13 on 4-for-16 shooting. Sharnise Beal had 11 points, while Gartrell added 10 on 5-for-15 shooting.

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