NEWARK, Del. — Julie Forsters red, puffy eyes reflected the sentiment of Albanys players felt after their valiant upset bid against North Carolina came up short.
Forster and her teammates came tantalizingly close to ousting the third-seeded Tar Heels in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before falling 59-54 on Sunday.
The 14th-seeded Great Danes led at halftime and had a 48-44 lead with 9:46 left before succumbing to the second-place finisher in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"Pretty amazing, huh?" Albany coach Katie Abrahmson-Henderson said. "I'm just proud of them. We wouldn't go away. We did everything they needed to do."
Forster, a senior forward, grabbed 13 rebounds. But she was 2 for 10 from the floor with six turnovers in 34 minutes, so her disappointment was understandable.
But Abrahmson-Henderson would have none of it.
"They need to be proud," the coach said of her seniors. "Their heads need to be up."
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt scored a career-high 30 points for the Tar Heels (29-6). The 5-foot-10 senior scored 17 of the Tar Heels' final 21 points including two clinching free throws with 10.8 seconds left.
"I just didn't want to go home tonight," she said.
Waltiea Rolle had 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots for North Carolina, which moves on to a matchup with sixth-seeded Delaware (31-3). Delaware advanced with a 66-53 win over West Virginia.
Megan Craig scored 12 points, and Ebone Henry and Lindsey Lowrie each had 11 for Albany (27-4), the American East champions. The 14th-seeded Great Danes came in with a 19-game winning streak, and nearly made it an even 20.
"We deserved to win that game, and I think everyone in the (interview) room knows that," Abrahmson-Henderson said. "North Carolina knows that, too. I respect the North Carolina coach a lot, but after the game she looked at me like, whew."
She added: "We missed a few wide-open shots in the end ... and then down the stretch, No. 44 just carried them."
That would be Ruffin-Pratt, who went 10 for 24 from the floor, 7 for 11 at the line and also had a team-high five steals.
"She just carried that team today all by herself," Abrahmson-Henderson said.
What made Ruffin-Pratt's performance even more impressive was she picked up her fourth foul with 9:39 left.
"I just played bold," Ruffin-Pratt said. "I just kept playing as hard as I could. It really didn't stop me from being aggressive. I kept driving to the basket."
North Carolina trailed 42-36 before Ruffin-Pratt scored six points in an 8-2 spree that tied it at 44 with just over 10 minutes left.
Albany wouldn't blink. After Shereesha Richards made one of two free throws, Henry was fouled while scoring on a pretty back-door play, then added the foul shot for a 48-44 lead.
Ruffin-Pratt then rattled off seven straight points to put the Tar Heels up 51-48, and although Albany had several chances to pull even, the Tar Heels never relinquished the lead.
It was 56-54 when Henry stepped out of bounds with 47 seconds left. Rolle made a free throw on the other end, and Ruffin-Pratt clinched it with two shots at the line after she missed a pair.
Albany led by as many as seven points in the first half before settling for a 28-23 advantage at the break. The Great Danes limited North Carolina to 7-for-26 shooting from the floor and used their quickness to build a 24-15 rebounding edge eight of which came on the offensive glass.