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Seniors grind out Charlotte victory in regular-season finale

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Charlotte turned to its two seniors, Alexis Alexander and Kira Gordon, in the waning minutes to lock up a 72-69 hard-fought win over North Texas Saturday night on Senior Night inside Halton Arena. The victory gives the 49ers a 12-2 record inside Halton Arena and leaves the program one triumph shy of 20 overall for the campaign entering the Conference USA Championships this coming week in Birmingham, Alabama.

Gordon topped Charlotte (19-10, 12-6 C-USA) with 19 points on 6-of-11 field goals and 7-of-9 free throws to go along with five rebounds, four steals, three assists and a blocked shot in 37 minutes. Alexander added 17 points on 7-of-11 from the floor and 3-of-3 at the charity stripe in addition to a team-high eight boards and one each of an assist, steal and block in 30 minutes.

Freshman Grace Hunter chipped in 18 points, making 8-of-11 field goals, as the trio helped lift the 49ers above 50.0 percent shooting (27-of-52, 51.9 percent) for the third-straight contest.

The Mean Green was led by Acheil Tac’s double-double of 26 points and 10 caroms. She dropped in 11-of-16 attempts and 4-of-6 free throws for her game-high total. Teadra Jones contributed 20 points of her own, while Kelsey Criner poured in 13 points and handed out seven assists but committed five turnovers.

The 49ers blazed through the opening minutes much like they did Thursday night, knocking down five of their first seven shots to take a commanding 12-2 lead on Alexander’s jumper with 6:19 left. She posted half of the Charlotte points during that run, while Gordon tallied four to the effort. Tac then netted the next five North Texas (10-18, 5-13 C-USA) baskets, helping to pull her squad within six, 18-12, by the 2:35 mark. Both teams managed only free throws the rest of the way with sophomore Griffin Dempsey burying a pair for the Niners, widening the margin to seven, 20-13, through the initial period.

After Tac hit a jumper to start the second-quarter scoring, junior Ciara Gregory drained a 3-pointer and Gordon added a layup following Gregory’s first blocked shot of the campaign and the Charlotte lead grew back to 10, 25-15, with 7:52 remaining. Tac and Candice Adams trimmed the deficit to six but Dempsey countered with a nothing-but-net triple, her third in the last two games, to keep the difference at nine, 28-19. It was the ignitor for a 10-2 surge which spanned 3:19 and increased the advantage to 14, 35-21, following a Hunter layup on the receiving end of an assist from junior Lefty Webster. Three consecutive 3-pointers by the Mean Green, two from Jones and one by Criner, cut the gap to nine and then a Tac jumper sliced into the deficit even more, as North Texas found itself down seven, 39-32, with 1:24 left. It would remain a seven-point difference, 41-34, in the Niners’ favor entering the intermission.

The Mean Green carried their momentum over to the midway point of the third frame, using a 14-6 surge to take a one-point lead, 48-47. North Texas tallied eight straight during the spurt, including another Jones triple and an old-fashioned three-point play from Tac. Webster finally halted any further run with a jumper at 4:46 but the Mean Green responded with four more in a row to inch their lead to three, 52-49, at the 4:08 mark. Webster then knotted the score on a 3-pointer of her own. On the next North Texas trip down the floor, it faced a near-dire situation with the shot clock winding down. The visitors called timeout and Criner launched a long trey to beat the buzzer, putting them back in front, 55-52. Charlotte managed to pull back within one but would get no closer as the Mean Green opened a six-point edge down the stretch but Hunter’s jumper with four seconds remaining made it a four-point NT cushion, 62-58, entering the final period.

With its back up against the wall, Charlotte knew it had to come up defensively if it wanted to win the game. And it was the defense that helped will it to victory, as the Mean Green converted just 2-of-12 field goals, including 0-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc, in the last 10 minutes. Meanwhile, on the offensive side, the 49ers went to Alexander for five of their first seven points, with the other bucket by Gordon, to reclaim the upper hand, 65-64, with 7:21 to go. After a Tac free throw temporarily evened the score, Charlotte stretched its advantage to five, 70-65, during the next 2:05. Neither team scored for nearly two minutes but a Terra Ellison’s jumper and a pair of charity tosses from Tac made it just a one-point difference, 70-69, at the 1:45 mark. North Texas was able to attempt only two shots, both misses, with Alexander and Webster securing the rebounds. Gordon was fouled with 4.8 seconds to play and her two free throws iced the victory as Criner’s prayer fell short.

The 49ers enter the Conference USA Championships as the No. 4 seed with a double-bye into Thursday’s quarterfinals. Charlotte will learn of its opponent, which could be either Florida Atlantic, North Texas or Old Dominion, following the conclusion of second-round action Wednesday. The Niners will tip at approximately 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday inside UAB’s Bartow Arena.

-- Charlotte ends the regular season with a 19-10 record, its most wins during regular-season play since 2012-13 when it tallied 24.
-- The 49ers are on the verge of claiming another 20-win campaign during the program’s 41-year history. Should the Niners reach the milestone, it will be the 14th in school history and second under head coach Cara Consuegra.
-- Charlotte won for the first time all season when it was trailing after the third quarter. The Niners were 0-8 previously this year.
-- Head coach Cara Consuegra picked up career triumph No. 91, leaving her two shy of tying her boss, current director of athletics Judy (Wilkins) Rose, for second place on the school’s all-time list.
-- The 49ers tallied a 12-2 regular-season record inside Halton Arena during the 2015-16 campaign, their most wins in the building since the 2012-13 squad posted a school-record 14-4 ledger. That 2012-13 team also registered a dozen regular-season victories.
-- Only nine Charlotte teams have recorded at least 12 wins inside Halton Arena during the last 14 years, where the program owns a 162-44 (.786) mark since the start of the 2002-03 season.
-- The 49ers hit at least 50.0 percent of their field goals for the third-straight game, knocking down 27-fo-52 (51.9 percent) against North Texas.
-- Junior Kenya Olley made her return to the court after missing the last 10 games. She last played at WKU Jan. 23.
-- Grace Hunter’s five defensive rebounds tie her for the most by a freshman in program history. She shares the top spot with Charlette Hargrove (1993-94) and Tameka Smith (2004-05), as the trio each collected 134.
-- Hunter’s 321 points this season place her fourth among all-time rookies in school history. She trails third-place Kristin Wilson (1983-84) by three.

Charlotte Postgame Press Conference
Head coach Cara Consuegra

Opening statement
I think that’s a great game for us leading into the conference tournament, another tough grind out win. I was proud of our kids resolve. Clearly North Texas came to play the game. It mattered to them; the game mattered to us. I thought our third quarter, we didn’t play very well offensively and defensively and we got down by six. And I challenged our kids in that last timeout, really between the third and fourth quarter there wasn’t much I said other than ‘you guys decide if you want to win this game on your home court or not’. And in the fourth quarter, we did that. We played the best we had over the four quarters. Tremendously proud of Lexi (Alexis Alexander) and Kira (Gordon). We just rode them down the way. It was senior night and those kids really wanted to win. I know they wanted to leave everything they could out on the court and we just decided that we were going to give them touches almost every offensive possession and they made some tough shots and helped us get the lead back. And then, we were able to hold on to get the win. I think this team has done a tremendous job throughout this conference season. We have put ourselves in a great position going into the conference tournament and am really looking forward to next week with this group.

On slow start to third quarter
I’m not sure. I think we came out in the second half a little lackadaisical. I didn’t really see the intensity I expected to see coming out of the locker room. We were a little bit slow, I thought, defensively. We didn’t have a whole lot of intensity and I think that rubbed off on us on the offensive end. I don’t know that exact answer but I’m happy we were at least able to stop the bleeding and that third quarter didn’t get worse.

On the return of Kenya Olley
It was great to get her back out there. I really didn’t anticipate her playing tonight but her practice this week was good enough that she was ready, and clearly, she is going to give us a huge boost in tournament play. Even with her being out that long, I felt confident putting her in there for that last play defensively because she just brings an element with her length and her timing and her ability to rebound so I think all of that is a huge positive for our team.

On what was said to Lefty when she picked up her fourth foul
There’s not a whole lot I have to tell Lefty. She’s a veteran player and she understands the game and the flow. She probably really didn’t want me to take her out when she got that fourth foul but I felt that we needed to do that in order to protect her. And I knew as soon as they put Kelsey Criner back in the game, we were going to put Lefty back in and I thought she was solid for us down the stretch and I am just thankful that she didn’t foul out.

On team’s mindset entering tournament
I think we are in a great place. I think have to agree with Lexi, all of the ups and downs of this conference season and I certainly think we are on an upswing in terms of our health. It’s not perfect but no one’s is this time of year. We are confident but not overconfident and we understand that every game we win we have to earn. Nothing is going to come easy and it is certainly not going to come any easier once you get into tournament play. And I think we have some confidence in our ability to step up and rise to the occasion. Our team has been challenged over and over. I have challenged them with different things in terms of the team that they needed to be and how they needed to be in terms of leaders. Even Lexi, I challenged her hard coming into February about what she needed to be every day for this team in practice, and every time they have stepped up and met the challenge and that makes me feel comfortable as a coach knowing that when we go through next week, which is going to be hard, hopefully it will be fun, but it’s going to be hard that they’re ready to meet those hard challenges.

Senior Alexis Alexander

On playing in final game in Halton Arena
I mean it has not hit me yet. I just came out there and played like it was any other game. I wanted to end the regular season off with a win so we could go into the tournament with a little bit of momentum so was just leaving everything out there.

On team’s mindset
I think that we are the best that we have been in the past month. We have had a couple bigs that have been hurting. I am hurting but I am fine. Other than that, we are great. We’re the best that we have been.