Nov. 23, 2008

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -Thirteen times in the last four seasons, North Carolina has played in games involving two top-five teams, and coach Sylvia Hatchell revels in such competition.

"At the end, we'd have timeouts there, and I'd tell them, 'Now, we're having fun! You guys are having fun! This is what fun is all about! You've got to love the pressure. ... I've been in basketball 34 years and I just love it. You've got to relish the pressure."

Hatchell's players apparently do, as No. 4 North Carolina made just enough plays Sunday, escaping with an 80-79 win over No. 2 Oklahoma in the title game of the Women's Preseason NIT.

Oklahoma (3-1) had a chance in the final seconds, but a last-second running 6-footer by the Sooners' Danielle Robinson soared over the basket without touching anything.

Jessica Breland scored a career-high 31 points, including two key buckets in the final two minutes, providing enough offense for the Tar Heels on a day when Oklahoma had three players finish with a double-double, including Courtney Paris, who did so for the 96th straight game, extending her NCAA record.

"North Carolina is really good and they have been good for a really long time," said Paris, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. "But I think that expectations for ourselves are different this year. We don't expect to lose games. We know that we have some big games coming up, so we need to get ready for those."

Since the WNIT began playing its semifinals and final on home courts in 2001, North Carolina (5-0) is only the second road team to win, joining Purdue, which beat Baylor in the 2006 title game. In those recent top-five matchups, the Tar Heels are 7-6.

"Our game plan was to try and run them, because if you let them get down inside and do all their stuff they're deadly," Hatchell said. "There was just no way we could have matched up with them in there consistently for 40 minutes."

The game featured seven lead changes, with the teams never separated by more than eight points. The Tar Heels went ahead for good at 63-60 on a 3-pointer by Heather Claytor with 9:07 left and led 80-75 after Breland - the tournament MVP - scored off an offensive rebound with 1:04 left.

"I just had a lot of open shots, I guess," said Breland, who went 14-of-18 from the field. "I didn't really notice how many points I had until the end of the game."

Amanda Thompson hit two free throws with 54.3 seconds left to cut Oklahoma's deficit to three points, and after Cetera DeGraffenreid missed a long 3-point attempt for the Tar Heels, Oklahoma opted to go for a 2-pointer. Italee Lucas fouled Robinson, who made both free throws with 8.3 seconds left, making it 80-79.

Paris quickly fouled Rashanda McCants, who missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw chance. Oklahoma rebounded and called time-out with 6.1 seconds left to set up the final play for Robinson, who scored 20 points. She drove the length of the court before deciding to shoot instead of pass.

Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said she thought Robinson might have rushed the play, an assessment with which Robinson agreed.

"I was trying to draw the foul but I didn't get into her enough," Robinson said.

Ashley Paris had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Oklahoma while Thompson had 14 points and 11 rebounds. But the Sooners, who entered the game averaging 17 more rebounds per game than their opponents, managed only a 46-44 edge against a North Carolina team that was outrebounded 59-34 in its WNIT semifinal win over Xavier.

Oklahoma went without an offensive rebound for the game's first 12 minutes.

"I knew rebounding was going to be big," Hatchell said. "They outrebounded us, but only by two. I think we got some big ones when we needed, too."

Coale said Oklahoma's poor outside shooting - 2-of-17 from 3-point range - proved to be its undoing. North Carolina went 5-of-17 from behind the arc.

"We need to make open shots," Coale said. "When it's a one-point game, it can be one rebound, it can be one free throw, it can be one 3. It can be a million different things."

Besides Breland, only two Tar Heels scored in double figures - Chay Shegog, with 12 points, and McCants, with 10.

The Sooners sprinted to a 6-0 with three layups, but North Carolina soon took control of the lane thanks to a seemingly unending supply of 6-foot inside players.

The Tar Heels led 27-19 after a putback by Shegog with 6:09 left in the half. Oklahoma rallied within one, but two baskets by Breland - short jumpers over Paris, who was playing with two fouls - restored North Carolina's lead to five at 32-27. Oklahoma answered by scoring the next nine points and led 37-34 at halftime.