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ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — Score one for size over speed.
Italee Lucas scored 22 points and Jessica Breland added 18, helping North Carolina hold off Kentucky 86-74 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday night, the Tar Heels' superior height and length trumping the Wildcats' awesome quickness.
"It all started with rebounding," Breland said after the Tar Heels' 55-31 dominance on the boards led to all sorts of problems for the Wildcats.
North Carolina (27-8), which made it to the ACC tournament final, will face top-seeded Stanford on Saturday in Spokane, Wash.
"Right now is the best time to be playing your best basketball," said Krista Gross, who added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the fifth-seeded Tar Heels, who reached the round of 16 one year after going one-and-out in the NCAA tournament minus Breland, who missed last season while fighting cancer.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats were led by Victoria Dunlap's 23 points but she grabbed just four rebounds — less than half her average — and only one off the defensive glass, which set the tone for a long night. Kentucky, which hasn't beaten North Carolina in five tries, finished 25-9 a year after reaching the round of eight.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said Sunday that she was more than willing to turn this game into a "horse race" with the lightning quick Wildcats, whose game is built around a stifling pressure defense, something Mitchell welcomed, saying a run-and-gun game might shake his team out of its offensive doldrums.
It was on defense where the Wildcats couldn't match up with Carolina, though.
North Carolina's superior size produced a dominance on the defensive glass that led to dozens of transition baskets and caused Mitchell afterward to bemoan his team's lack of energy and enthusiasm.
The Tar Heels outrebounded Kentucky 55-31 and outscored the Wildcats 18-2 on the fast break and 17-9 on second-chance points.
"We just haven't had a game like that that our team just wouldn't go to the boards," Mitchell said. "We just got caught standing in the middle. So we wouldn't go rebound, jogging back, it was a real uncharacteristic game for us. That's why I'm so disappointed I could not get the team motivated to play North Carolina.
"I thought it was a very pathetic performance in transition. When you let North Carolina get out and go 3-on-1 and you're just jogging back; lights out, you're done. It was one of the most disappointing performances I've ever seen from our team here at Kentucky."
The Wildcats forced 817 turnovers this season, including 22 Monday night, and they scored 24 points off those takeaways. So, Kentucky was able to cut a 15-point second-half deficit to just two points in the waning minutes and had a chance to take the lead late in the game but never did.
The Tar Heels sank 21 of 22 free throws in the second half to fend off Kentucky's comeback hopes.
Breland had a bank shot, Gross hit two free throws and Lucas sank a 3-pointer and four foul shots down the stretch to help North Carolina advance.
The Tar Heels led by 15 early in the second half and were threatening to turn this one into a laugher when the Wildcats starting chipping away at their 52-37 deficit.
Dunlap scored six points in an 11-0 run that cut North Carolina's lead to 63-60 with 7:40 left.
The Wildcats had a chance to go ahead but Crystal Riley threw up an airball from beyond the arc with North Carolina leading 67-65, and Breland sank two free throws at the other end. After a hook by Brittany Henderson for Kentucky, Breland's leaning bank shot made it 71-67, and the Tar Heels were perfect on a dozen free throw attempts over the final four minutes.
The Tar Heels outrebounded the Wildcats 26-15 in the first half, and when they started making halfcourt outlet passes before Kentucky could set up its tenacious defense, they went on two 8-0 runs that gave them a 40-30 halftime lead and all the momentum.
Kentucky was trying to commit three and four players to the offensive rebound and were unable to get back in transition.
"We were getting rebounds and instead of handing it off to the guard, we were turning and throwing the ball 30 feet or more," Hatchell said. "I was a little nervous there when we first started doing it because I thought they would try to intercept some passes but we got rolling there because we got some really good outlets and we got some numbers.
"And some of that was because they want to press and they're looking to get matched up and put their press on us. So, we were actually getting the ball out over top of them. It's a gamble at times, but it worked for us. ... It was tough for them because they usually just destroy everybody with their pressure."
Lucas said she noticed the Wildcats getting tired.
"We saw it all over their face," she said. "So I kept telling the girls, 'They're tired. Keep pushing. Keep pushing. There's another level.' You might think you're tired, but you can't be when it's this time of the season and you have crucial games like this so we just kept pushing."
Dunlap, the SEC player of the year, was a non-factor on the glass, and so were all her teammates with the exception of Henderson, who grabbed a half dozen offensive boards.
Although Dunlap finished her Kentucky career No. 2 in the record books in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, free throws and double-doubles, her last game was a clunker in Mitchell's mind.
"The thing I asked them to do was to work hard and out-rebound North Carolina, to have that type of mindset, that sort of spirit and heart tonight," Mitchell said. "When you look at Dunlap with four rebounds, one defensive rebound, it's just a tough way for her career to end. As far as this game goes, we did not get enough from her, nor anyone, especially in the rebound department. The effort was just really poor."