UNC's Italee Lucas lights up Iowa
Senior guard scores a career-high 34 points to hold off Hawkeyes
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There might be words Sylvia Hatchell reviles more than "slow" and "steady" -- "Blue" and "Devils" come to mind, along with "earth" and "tone" -- but it's undoubtedly a short list. "Fast" and "frenzied" are more apt accompaniments for the preferred pace of play most nights in Carmichael Arena.
But sometimes even North Carolina doesn't mind playing the long game.
Three years after she arrived as the heir apparent to Ivory Latta -- fair or unfair as the label might have been -- Italee Lucas has gone from arguably North Carolina's best player in a season the program would very much like everyone to stop talking about to arguably one of North America's best college players on a team that might have people buzzing in March.
In No. 15 North Carolina's first test of the season, Lucas scored a career-high 34 points to lead the Tar Heels to a 79-67 victory against No. 18 Iowa. The senior staked her team to a 20-point lead in the first half and rescued it when the Hawkeyes twice pulled to within a single point in the second half. She took 16 shots and hit 10 of them, including six of nine attempts from the 3-point line. The rest of the Tar Heels shot 33 percent from the floor.
"Lucas is a great player," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "She really hurt us; she's even better than I thought she was going to be, watching her on film."
Turnovers hurt the Hawkeyes more than anything in the game's opening minutes -- seconds, to be precise. The first one came 17 seconds in. Before even 90 seconds had elapsed, Iowa had three giveaways and North Carolina had a 6-0 lead and a Christmas present 23 days ahead of schedule. Then Lucas went to work, going all the way to the basket in transition one possession and pulling up for a 3-pointer in transition seconds later.
She had 12 points before the game was eight minutes old, 17 points with four minutes to play in the opening half -- and she never did get to the free throw line in a game with few whistles.
"She's got a quick release; she's got a really pretty shot," Bluder said.
But Iowa didn't let Lucas pile up big numbers in a blowout. Down big in the first half, the Hawkeyes cut the lead to 15 points at halftime and came out playing like a cornered animal -- launching every 3-pointer that came their way (a school-record 37 attempts in all) and throwing their bodies around with enough abandon to beat the Tar Heels on the boards in the second half. They could have quit; they did anything but.
As Bluder put it, "I told our kids, 'Don't hang your heads, because you could have walked out of here whipped puppies.' And they didn't. They battled back, and I'm proud of them for that."
The only problem was that Lucas was still around. With 10 minutes to play, Iowa cut the lead to 50-49. After North Carolina extended the lead to three points, back-to-back Lucas 3-pointers from opposite corners pushed it to 58-49 and forced Iowa back into a hole. With five minutes to play, Iowa again cut the deficit to a point, this time at 61-60 on Jaime Printy's 3-pointer. With a defender in her chest to such a degree that she had to jackknife like a diver while getting off the shot, Lucas drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Then she got out in transition and pushed the lead to 66-60 all of 25 seconds later.
She is a more complete player this year. And she's not trying to overdo it. I think her decision-making is better. But hey, I don't know anybody in the country that can shoot [like Lucas] -- she is a pure shooter and she can stretch the defense, no doubt about that.” -- UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell on Italee Lucas
It's not like Lucas hasn't had her scoring moments at North Carolina, averaging 14.7 points last season and 13.9 per game the season before. It's just that there's something more there this season.
"She's a shooter," Hatchell said. "You've just got to get her open, but she's a shooter. But she is a more complete player this year. And she's not trying to overdo it. I think her decision-making is better. But hey, I don't know anybody in the country that can shoot [like Lucas] -- she is a pure shooter and she can stretch the defense, no doubt about that."
But it wasn't just layups and jump shots. During her first-half run, Lucas leaped to corral a potential turnover on a ball thrown too high into the lane, landed, turned authoritatively over her right shoulder and dropped in a half-hook over bigger bodies. In the second half, she got a defender in the air at the top of the key with a shot fake, drove to the right and knocked down a fadeaway jumper from the right block when the defense sealed off her path to the basket.
North Carolina gets a lot of points in transition and it gets a lot of points on second chances -- something that looks promising again this season with Clay Shegog and Laura Broomfield (12 points, 11 rebounds) among a deep reserve of big, athletic bodies on the roster. But there are times, particularly in games against teams that take care of the ball and rebound well -- in other words, the kind of games you tend to play after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament -- when someone needs to be able to create offense for herself in limited space. Ivory Latta could do that. Jessica Breland might yet be able to do that again.
But Lucas is showing signs that she can score the three or four baskets per game on top of the transition layups and 3-pointers -- the kind of thing that separates good from great. Although at least in her mind, it's the attention to detail in every other aspect of the game that is fueling her offensive ascension.
"I feel like it's more channeled," Lucas said of her mindset. "The offseason, I worked a lot on my defense, and just more aspects other than scoring. And I feel like that feeds into the scoring ability. As far as defense and motivating my other teammates, I'm just more focused on the little things and it's increased my offensive game. I've just really been pushing myself more on things I need to work on."
She has done it against a bunch of mediocre teams this season, and now she has done it against one very good team. The next step will be doing it against the ACC, not to mention Connecticut in January in Chapel Hill. But the outsized expectations that accompanied her arrival three autumns ago no longer look so foolish as her final winter begins.
"I think there was a lot of expectation because she was, in high school, one of the top players in the country," Hatchell said. "And I think in high school, she had to do a lot to carry her team. When she came here, we had a lot of other good players. Sometimes kids come in, they try to play like they did in high school when they had to carry the team. So I think she had some adjusting to do there.
"At first she was more of a support player, but she had to grow into the go-to player."
What the Tar Heels harvest as a result could be well worth the wait.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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