Rutgers faced its first real test of the young season and despite the loss, coach C. Vivian Stringer was happy with her team's effort.
Allisha Gray scored a season-high 29 points and No. 6 North Carolina rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half to beat No. 18 Rutgers 96-93 in double overtime Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
"I told them not to drop our heads," Stringer said. "We're capable of being a Final Four team. We need to change some things, address a couple things."
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell was equally impressed with the Scarlet Knights.
"I think they are top 10," Hatchell said. "I really do. They are so athletic."
It was only the second meeting between the Hall of Fame coaches. The two have combined for 1,878 victories and rank No. 2 and No. 3 on the career wins list, behind Pat Summitt.
In a back-and-forth game, Rutgers blew a 12-point lead over the final 9:47 of regulation. North Carolina was up by five with 37 seconds left in overtime before the Scarlet Knights rallied to force another OT.
Xylina McDaniel's layup gave the Tar Heels (8-0) a 90-88 lead with 1:45 left. Ariel Butts hit two free throws to tie it, the second of which sat on the rim for a few seconds before dropping in.
Gray then converted a layup with a minute left and Latifah Coleman had a steal and layup to give North Carolina a 94-90 lead. She hit two free throws with 20.9 seconds left to seal the win.
"It's pretty tough because we felt we were there, almost had it," said Betnijah Laney, who had 24 points and a career-best 24 rebounds to lead Rutgers. "It's fresh in the season, better now than later."
The Scarlet Knights (6-1) had the longest current winning streak in the country with 12 straight wins dating to last season's WNIT championship run.
Rutgers got off to a slow start, missing its first nine shots, and trailed 11-0 by the first media timeout. Then Laney got going. The senior forward finished the first half with 14 points and 14 rebounds, including a putback with 1.5 seconds left that made it 33-29. She set her previous career best for rebounds with 18 last Friday against Colgate.
North Carolina: This is the first time since the Tar Heels started playing basketball in 1976-77 that the team has played four ranked teams before New Year's Day. North Carolina beat UCLA, Oklahoma State and Stanford last month. The Tar Heels will most likely face a fifth ranked opponent when No. 17 Oregon State visits on Dec. 16.
Rutgers: The other meeting between the coaches came on Dec. 29, 1989, when Stringer was at Iowa. The Hawkeyes won that game 106-81 at the Hilton Head Island Super Shootout. ... Rutgers' 100-44 victory over Davidson on Sunday was the first time the school reached that scoring milestone under Stringer. ... The Scarlet Knights' last victory over a top-10 team came against Auburn in the 2009 NCAA tournament.
Laney set the women's basketball rebounding record at the RAC, surpassing the 21 Sue Wicks had on Rutgers' home court in 1987. Laney fell short of the school record set by Sandy Tupurins in 1977 against William Paterson.
Hatchell was impressed with Rutgers' up-tempo style.
"I got to give Vivian a compliment," she said. "I love how they run up and down the floor. I've picked at her for years and kidded with her: You've got those thoroughbreds, let them loose.' She's had so many great players. There are a lot of different ways to get the milk in the jug. She had her way, I had my way. I love that they are playing like that. They are a great team, fun to watch. Fans like it, too."
North Carolina hosts Appalachian State on Dec. 14. The Tar Heels have exams starting Friday.
Rutgers visits No. 25 Arkansas on Sunday.