CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- North Carolina nearly squandered a 14-point lead in the final 30 seconds Saturday against UCF, confirming coach Sylvia Hatchell's fears that her team might start flat in the NCAA tournament.
Heather Claytor scored a season-high 17 points, while Italee Lucas and Jessica Breeland added 17 each as the third-seeded Tar Heels beat the No. 14 seed Knights 85-80 in the opening round.
North Carolina will play No. 6 seed Purdue Monday night in the Oklahoma City Regional's second round. Purdue defeated No. 11 seed Charlotte 53-39.
Hatchell had her team play South Dakota on March 15 -- a day before the NCAA bracket announcement -- to try and keep them fresh during the two-week layoff between the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and the NCAA.
"If we had not played that game, we might've lost today," Hatchell said. "I'm just being serious with you. A lot of times you're rusty playing this first game because you've had such a long layoff. I think that game made us realize a sense of urgency a little more and helped make us be a little more focused for how good this team was."
North Carolina (28-6) matched its biggest lead at 85-71 on Breeland's layup with 33 seconds left. Then Hatchell pulled her, too. UCF (17-17) went to work, scoring the final nine points in a flurry featuring a steal and a couple turnovers by the Tar Heels.
"Whether they put their bench in or not, we wanted to leave an impression," UCF coach Joi Williams said. "These last 37 seconds show people what you're made of and how you're going to finish out games. The last timeout we talked ... We wanted to play smart, play aggressive and see if we could score some more points...
"I was very proud of how they finished off the game. I think that's the impression we'll leave for UCF women's basketball and for North Carolina if we meet them again."
North Carolina used its size to shoot over the smaller Knights, hitting 9-of-20 from 3-point range. The Tar Heels have seven players 6-foot-1 or taller compared to UCF, who played only two of its 6-footers.
The Tar Heels improved to 15-3 all-time in first-round games but never led by more than 14 against pesky UCF which has a roster filled with only sophomores and freshmen.
North Carolina needed some help from Claytor, who came off the bench averaging 3.7 points per game but hit 4-of-6 from 3-point range. Hatchell said Claytor worked well against UCF's zone after having her minutes limited against teams playing man-to-man in the past 10 games or so.
"You have to be ready every game," Claytor said. "I think it just means that there will be games where certain people don't step up and others have to. If one person doesn't have their usual night, other people will."
Chelsie Wiley led UCF with 22 points, Emma Cannon had 18 and grabbed 14 rebounds and Marshay White had 12.
The Knights won the Conference USA tournament title with four wins in four days to make their third NCAA trip ever and first since 1999.
D'Nay Daniels' jumper gave the Knights their lone lead at 11-10 at 15:18. UCF got within 34-32 on a 3-pointer by Wiley with 3:35 to go, but North Carolina finished the half with a 10-2 run and led 44-34 at halftime.
"It's a matter of us not forgetting about how we felt today and just working harder to get back," Cannon said.
The Tar Heels had a scary moment with 12 minutes left as Rashanda McCants and Cannon got tangled up going after a rebound and went to the floor. McCants was slow to get up before heading to the bench, where she was examined and held a bag of ice to her head. She returned and finished the game.