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UNC has its chances late, but can't hold lead in 67-65 loss to South Carolina in NCAA Sweet 16

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GREENSBORO, North Carolina — North Carolina just couldn't protect its late lead.

The Tar Heels led by three in the final 90 seconds before falling 67-65 to South Carolina on Tiffany Mitchell's driving basket with 4.2 seconds left in Friday night's NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game. It was a painfully close finish for the Tar Heels, who flirted with handing the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks another earlier-than-expected loss only to come up a couple of plays short.

"I still think that we're the better team," sophomore center Stephanie Mavunga said. "I just feel as if, like I said, if there was just one possession here or there and it would have been a different team celebrating."

UNC led 63-60 entering the final 2 minutes, but there were several plays to lament by the final horn. Most notably, there was a hurried missed shot from Latifah Coleman with 1:24 left, a loose offensive rebound on a missed free throw that set up Olivia Gaines' bounce-around-the-rim tying 3-pointer, then a missed contested 3 from Jessica Washington that led to Mavunga fouling out while battling for the rebound underneath. That foul set up two free throws from Alaina Coates for the lead in the final minute.

There was also a turnover when Mavunga threw an outlet pass off a rebound to Coleman, only to have her bumped by a defender at the sideline and go out of bounds with 3:17 left.

Each one came when the Tar Heels were on the verge of increasing the pressure even more on the Gamecocks.

Instead, Southeastern Conference player of the year Mitchell drove to the basket to give South Carolina the win.

She finished with 18 points for the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks (33-2), who had to fight the entire way to push past UNC in a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 game and advance to the Greensboro Region final.

Coates also scored 18 points, including the two key free throws for the lead with 46.1 seconds to go. Then Mitchell answered a tying basket from Jessica Washington in the final minute by driving past Brittany Rountree for what turned out to be the winning score.

Fourth-seeded UNC (26-9) had one more chance, but freshman Jamie Cherry's desperation runner hit all backboard as the horn sounded, sending the Gamecocks into an oncourt celebration.

South Carolina had reached the Elite Eight only once before, losing to Duke in 2002. Now Dawn Staley's Gamecocks are back to face No. 2 seed Florida State on Sunday with the winner going to the Final Four.

Latifah Coleman scored 10 of her 15 after halftime for North Carolina.

PHOTO: North Carolina's Allisha Gray, left, and South Carolina's Alaina Coates chase a loose ball during the first half of a women's college basketball regional semifinal game in the NCAA Tournament Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina's Allisha Gray, left, and South Carolina's Alaina Coates chase a loose ball during the first half of a women's college basketball regional semifinal game in the NCAA Tournament Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)


TIP-INS

UNC: Allisha Gray scored 12 points, while Mavunga had 10 points and 13 rebounds. ... UNC shot 37 percent. ... UNC made 11 of 14 free throws after halftime. .. Washington's drive to tie it with 27.2 seconds left was UNC's last basket of the season.

South Carolina: Tina Roy scored 12, including three second-half 3-pointers. ... Gaines' tying 3 was her only basket. ... The Gamecocks shot 52 percent after halftime.

REPLAY

Last year's Sweet 16 meeting was on the opposite coast at Stanford. The Gamecocks were a No. 1 seed and the Tar Heels were a No. 4, but UNC won 65-58 behind star freshman Diamond DeShields to end the Gamecocks' 29-win season.

This time, they were both much closer to home and DeShields was gone after an abrupt transfer. This game was in the Tar Heels' home state roughly an hour from the Chapel Hill campus, but the Gamecocks had a larger and louder group of fans in the building — Staley said nine busses' worth — for this one.

COATES' BIG NIGHT

In addition to Coates' 18 points, she had 10 rebounds with a 10-for-10 performance at the foul line.

UP NEXT

North Carolina: Season is complete.

South Carolina: Plays Florida State on Sunday.


Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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