Italee Lucas scored 22 points and Jessica Breland added 18, helping North Carolina hold off Kentucky 86-74 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday night, the Tar Heels' superior size trumping the Wildcats' awesome quickness.
North Carolina (27-8) will face Stanford on Saturday in Spokane, Wash. The fifth-seeded Tar Heels reached the round of 16 one year after going one-and-out in the NCAA tournament without Breland, who missed last season while fighting cancer.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats were led by Victoria Dunlap's 23 points. Kentucky, which hasn't beaten North Carolina in five tries, finished 25-9 a year after reaching the round of eight.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said Sunday that she was more than willing to turn this game into a "horse race" with the lightning quick Wildcats, whose game is built around a stifling pressure defense, something Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell welcomed, saying a run-and-gun game might shake his team out of its offensive doldrums.
North Carolina's superior size produced a dominance on the defensive glass that led to dozens of transition baskets.
The Tar Heels outrebounded Kentucky 55-31 and outscored the Wildcats 18-2 on the fast break, 17-9 on second-chance points and 40-34 in the paint.
But the Wildcats forced 817 turnovers this season, including 22 Monday night, and they scored 24 points off those takeaways.
So, Kentucky cut a 15-point second-half deficit to just two points in the waning minutes and had a chance to take the lead late in the game but never did.
The Tar Heels sank 21 of 22 free throws in the second half to fend off Kentucky's comeback hopes.
Breland had a bank shot, Krista Gross (14 points, 10 rebounds) hit two free throws and Lucas sank a 3-pointer and four foul shots down the stretch to help North Carolina advance.
The Tar Heels led by 15 early in the second half and were threatening to turn this one into a laugher when the Wildcats starting chipping away at their 52-37 deficit.
Chay Shegog sank a sweet hook shot but at the other end picked up her fourth foul with 16:32 remaining and had to take a seat as A'dia Mathies' completed the three-point play to pull the Wildcats to 46-37.
Dunlap, playing in her record 133rd game for Kentucky, scored six points in an 11-0 run that cut North Carolina's lead to 63-60 with 7:40 left.
The Wildcats had a chance to go ahead but Crystal Riley threw up an airball from beyond the arc with North Carolina leading 67-65, and Breland sank two free throws at the other end. After a hook by Brittany Henderson for Kentucky, Breland's leaning bank shot made it 71-67.
The Tar Heels outrebounded the Wildcats 26-15 in the first half, and that fueled two separate 8-0 runs as they took a 40-30 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Their first 8-0 spurt gave them a 24-18 lead.
Gross, who was held to two points in North Carolina's first-round win over Fresno State, had two of the baskets and Lucas had the other two, including one following a steal by Breland.
North Carolina's second 8-0 spurt, also fueled by the fastbreak that started with big boards from their taller inside players, gave the Tar Heels a 34-25 lead with 1:26 left in the first half.
Both team's fickle forwards had much better starts than they did in their first-round games on this floor 48 hours earlier.
Dunlap, the SEC player of the year, was plagued by foul trouble in the opener and, according to her coach, a lack of focus in the opener. Breland, whose lungs were damaged by chemotherapy drugs while undergoing cancer treatment last year, was affected by the altitude.
Dunlap pledged not to commit silly fouls and she finished with two infractions. Breland worked up a sweat in warmups and hit her second wind in the first half. Both of them had good games on this night.