MYRTLE BEACH - The South Carolina Gamecocks provided evidence to North Carolina on Sunday they have made strides in coach Dawn Staley's year-plus at the school.
But the Tar Heels reminded them there is another level to reach in women's college basketball.
With junior guard Valerie Nainima bombing away from the outside and 6-foot-5 freshman Kelsey Bone pounding the inside, the Gamecocks erased an early 18-point deficit and took a six-point lead midway through the second half.
Ninth-ranked UNC (9-1) remained resolute and rallied for a 93-85 victory at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center behind a career-high 26 points from junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid.
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"I thought our kids grew up," said Staley, whose team fell to 6-4. "I thought our kids fought, they were resilient and put themselves in position to win the game at the end, but it's a tough North Carolina team. They've been in those situations plenty of times. We've just got to continue to grow."
UNC continued its dominance in the Crescent Bank Carolinas Challenge with the win in front of an announced crowd of 2,100. The Tar Heels annually play at the beach prior to their Christmas break, and have won 10 in a row at the convention center, most by comfortable margins.
Little about Sunday's contest was comfortable.
"We ended up pulling it out, but South Carolina kept coming after us," Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "They played hard and great. . . . Win or lose, this game made both teams better, mentally and physically."
The game was played at a frenetic pace from the outset, when UNC ran out to a 14-6 lead less than four minutes in sparked by full-court pressure that had the Gamecocks flustered.
The Tar Heels built the lead to 18 points with 5 minutes remaining in the first half, but the Gamecocks closed the half on a 15-2 run to pull within five points.
Defensive intensity sparked USC's run, and Nainima caught fire to provide 12 of the 15 points with a layup, pair of free throws, two 3-pointers and a long jumper.
UNC opened the second half on a 12-7 run to re-establish a 10-point lead, but the Gamecocks shut down the Tar Heels during a 19-2 run over 5:30 to take a 65-59 lead with 11 minutes left.
During the run, Bone, who finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, had six points inside and Nainima, who finished with 26 points and nine assists while hitting 5 of 12 3-pointers, had five points.
DeGraffenreid, one of the few experienced players for a UNC squad with two seniors on the roster, converted a three-point play, assisted on a Chay Shegog layup and hit a pair of free throws in a 7-0 run that gave the Tar Heels the lead.
The Tar Heels took control of the game shortly thereafter, opening up a seven-point lead and holding at least a four-point lead for the final 5 minutes.
"We just kept playing Carolina basketball. We went after them," said DeGraffenreid, who scored many of her points in transition. " . . . With our team being young, I'm proud of them for playing the way they did."
A victory against UNC would have been Staley's signature win at USC. She went to Columbia last year after eight seasons at Temple, the last five with more than 20 victories each.
The Gamecocks went 10-18 in her first season, but entered Sunday's game on a four-game winning streak that included victories against N.C. State and Wake Forest. The Gamecocks' prior losses were to Clemson in double overtime, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
The Gamecocks might become a regular contestant for UNC in the Carolinas Challenge.
In recent years the Tar Heels have played Illinois, Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and St. John's. South Carolina was the last team to beat the Tar Heels in Myrtle Beach, in 2001.
North Carolina is contracted to play Illinois again next year - Illini coach Jolette Law is from Florence - but South Carolina has committed to play in 2011 and both Staley and Hatchell said they are interested in making it an annual series.
"I wish we could do that every year: North Carolina vs. South Carolina," Hatchell said. "That's great for this tournament."