Lewis’ career day leads Alabama over North Carolina

Crimson Tide players react after beating North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament first round. Alabama Athletics photo.

Jordan Lewis tallied 32 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists to power No. 7 Alabama over No. 10 North Carolina, 80-71, in NCAA Tournament first-round action Monday.

It is the Crimson Tide’s first tourney appearance since 1999.

Coach Stephanie Curry had high praise for her star guard.

“The world saw today why Jordan Lewis is in my mind the best point guard in the SEC,” Curry said/ “She shares and cares and finds ways to impact us in so many different categories.”

Lewis said she has prepared for big moments.

“When I came to Alabama, I told coach Curry that we were gonna get back here on the big stage,” she said. “And I think that we have worked so hard – and it was taken away last year – so I think when you get a moment like this, you can’t miss the opportunity.  . . . Don’t miss a chance to be great. So I think today we just couldn’t miss that opportunity.”

Tarheel coach Courtney Banghart credited Lewis for the Crimson Tide’s momentum.

“Jordan Lewis was a woman amongst children it looked like at times,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart said. “Jordan Lewis was a problem. And it’s hats off to her, she had a great night. And as a result, her team’s advanced.”

Lewis was the engine that drove Alabama to victory, but she was not alone. Three of her teammates also scored in double figures, including an 11-12 double-double from fellow senior Ariya Copeland.

Stephanie Watts matched Lewis nearly point for point for North Carolina, hitting seven three-pointers as part of a 29-point game, but the youngsters on her team did not step up to help. Only fellow senior Janelle Bailey joined Watts in double figures, with 16.

“I knew there was no way that Steff was going to was going to come back to Carolina, do everything she could to get this team back to the NCAA tournament, and then lay an egg,” Banghart said. “That was never in my thought, it was never a worry.

“In a way I didn’t actually even have to coach Steff was today, that’s sort of what we expected and what we knew we’d get [offensively]. “And you know she’s gotten so much better defensively. . . . She figured out how to use her motor to understand angles in a way that she’s much more pro ready and her ability to guard not only on the ball but off the ball with her length I think she showed that today that she’s a better defensive player.”

Watts transferred to Southern California after her redshirt junior season at North Carolina, but played just four games due to the second season-ending injury of her career. She returned to North Carolina as a graduate student to support second-year coach Banghart’s mission to bring Tar Heel basketball back to national prominence.

“I think [rebuilding the program] was my biggest thing just coming here and getting Carolina back on track,” Watts said. “I knew we had some really, really talented freshmen, and I was just excited to be a part of this and help them along the way.”

“I know how much potential they have and, like Coach said, unrealized potential is the worst kind. And I think that they were able to show what they could do this year and how they could get even better. I think every day I just bring to practice a light to everybody, and just trying to bring everybody up and bring everybody along with me.”

Alabama really sealed its victory in the first quarter, when North Carolina could not decipher the matchup 2-3 zone. Nor could they defend the dribble-drive, something that bedeviled them all game. The Crimson Tide led by seven after ten minutes, and never surrendered the lead.

North Carolina improved its play each quarter, but Alabama answered every run. For example, when the Tar Heels pulled within two points in the second period, the Tide (mostly Lewis) answered with an 8-2 run that took them to the locker room up by ten, 41-31.

“We really just need to work on our on-ball defending,” Watts said. “That was a problem today.”

“It’s March. Nothing’s easy. “So I give credit to Alabama for you know, being able to convert on our lack of on-ball presence.”

North Carolina actually won the second half by a point, but they never got closer than five in the final 20 minutes, and Alabama led by 14 with just 2:21 remaining in the game.

Alabama advances to play another Big 10 team, No. 2 Maryland, on Wednesday.