Ex-Centennial star Lucas leads Tar Heels in showdown against UConn

Italee Lucas knows what it’s like to play with a target on her uniform.

As a standout at Centennial High School, she led the Bulldogs to a two-year record of 63-4 while winning state basketball championships as a freshman and a sophomore in 2004 and 2005.

But that stellar run doesn’t compare to the challenge she will face at 1 p.m. PST today when she and the No. 7 North Carolina women’s team meet top-ranked Connecticut in a nationally televised game (CBS, Channel 8).

The reigning national champion Huskies have won their last 53 games — all by at least 10 points. UConn is 14-0 this season with a winning margin of 41.8 points per game.

“They’re human, too,” said Lucas, who turns 21 on Tuesday.

“Every game you go into you want to win. That’s the main focus.”

Lucas returned to Las Vegas to play UNLV on Nov. 22 and scored 24 points to lead UNC to a 78-68 victory.

“She brings a lot of energy to our team, and our style of play fits her because I let her play,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell told the Review-Journal after that game.

“She can shoot as good as probably any guard in the country.”

Lucas, who averages 17.4 points, showed that Wednesday when she scored 28 — including 23 in the first half — to lead Carolina to a 89-78 victory over No. 20 Georgia Tech.

“Italee Lucas was unbelievable in the first half,” Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. “That’s one of the best first halves of play I think I’ve ever seen a guard put on (as far as) a shooting display. She was amazing.”

The Huskies also won this week, beating Cincinnati 83-51 Thursday, and can tie Louisiana Tech for the second-longest streak in NCAA women’s history with a win today. UConn already holds the longest streak: 70 consecutive wins, set from 2001 to 2003.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting us to beat them, except maybe us,” said Hatchell, whose Tar Heels are 13-1. “We’re going to go up there and play like we’ve been playing.”

This will be the third straight year Lucas, a junior shooting guard, has been the underdog instead of Goliath on a court when her Tar Heels face coach Geno Auriemma’s Huskies.

“We just don’t want to have what happened to us last year,” Lucas said, referring to a 30-point rout by the then-top-ranked Huskies in Chapel Hill, N.C., when the Tar Heels were No. 2.

Lucas said the goal in Storrs, Conn., today will be “to play our best and leave the floor without having any regrets.”

A streak-stopping win would take care of that.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.

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