- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEWARK, Del. -- Come for the party. Stay for what was nearly a historic upset.
The Bob Carpenter Center wasn't as full for the game that followed host Delaware's comeback victory against West Virginia, but those fans who were on hand almost saw something even more rare than Elena Delle Donne.
There is one of her, after all. There had never been a win for a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Trailing most of the game, and down as many as eight points in the second half, third-seeded North Carolina rallied for a 59-54 victory and escaped attaching its name to unwanted history against No. 14 seed Albany.
Some thoughts on what was a great escape:
• Ace in the hole: Albany played better together for much, and maybe all, of Sunday's game, but the old adage that it pays to have the best player on the court in the postseason proved true. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt saved the day with 30 points, five assists (out of the nine field goals any other Tar Heels player hit) and five steals in an Alyssa Thomas-like performance. She did everything for her team except make substitutions.
So it was a good thing she kept herself in the game.
Ruffin-Pratt picked up her second and third fouls on one whistle in the first half, called for a personal foul and then a technical foul when she showed her displeasure with the ruling. She was then whistled for an offensive foul, her fourth, with nearly 10 minutes remaining in the second half but never came off the court.
"I just played ball," Ruffin-Pratt said. "The foul trouble sat me out a little bit in the first half, but I just kept playing as hard as I could. It really didn't stop me from being aggressive or anything. I kept driving to the basket, hitting my open teammates, getting to the rim."
• Battle of the bigs: North Carolina's Waltiea Rolle isn't all that familiar with meeting posts her own size in the ACC. Like the rest of us, the 6-foot-6 senior definitely isn't used to looking up at players from the America East. And Albany's 6-foot-8 sophomore center Megan Craig, a native of New Zealand, wasn't just a big body. Midway through the second half, she had a plus-15 plus-minus rating (Albany had outscored North Carolina by 12 points with her on the court). No other Albany player was better than plus-four at the time. She finished a team-high plus-seven.
But matched against Craig for much of the game, Rolle finished with 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks, the last neutralizing some of the plentiful second chances Albany gave itself.
• Rebounding: Speaking of second chances, Albany arrived in Newark ranked seventh in the nation in rebound margin. That put the team one slot ahead of Baylor, but it was difficult to know how much stock to put in the statistic, given the level of competition.
Well, put some stock in it. The Great Danes finished with two more rebounds than the Tar Heels and piled up 21 offensive rebounds. It wasn't just because they had a 6-8 kid, either. Craig had a modest six in Sunday's game, while senior Julie Forster had 13 to cap a career in which the program's all-time leading rebounder began as a walk-on on academic scholarship.
North Carolina still came up with the two rebounds it really needed in the final minute, Tar Heels twice tipping missed free throws back to teammates when defensive rebounds would have given Albany a chance to tie.
Up for the moment: Maybe it was the familiar feel of a mid-major gym, but Albany never looked uncomfortable in its surroundings. Considering that the only previous game the Great Danes had played this season against a team in the NCAA tournament field was a 67-35 loss at Michigan State around Thanksgiving, that's no small accomplishment.
"We deserved to win that game, and I think everybody in the room knows that," Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. "And I think North Carolina knows that, too."
• History made: Creighton nearly got No. 14 seeds on the board a season ago, losing at the buzzer against No. 3 St. John's in the first round. But the fact remained that those teams were 0-76 entering this year's tournament. Stetson and Wichita State added two more double-digit point losses to the tally against UCLA and Texas A&M, respectively, on Saturday, but perhaps the gap is closing.
Montana pushed UCLA in 2011, East Tennessee State pushed Xavier in 2010, and on and on. At some point, one of these No. 14 seeds will do it for 40 minutes instead of 35.
"The thing is you don't know how good they are because they don't get all the attention, the media attention and everything like that," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "You just don't know quite as much about them, I think. And because a lot of them are playing four guards now, you've got more ballhandlers that can handle pressure. Used to be, you could go after people a lot. But they can handle pressure because there's more guards out there. I think that makes a difference."
17dBonnie D. Ford