What do you get when you combine a Hall of Fame coach, an up-tempo run and run some more offense, a post with an incredibly triumphant story, and a talented team loaded with senior leadership and talented youngsters? You get the Spokane Region's 5th seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, a decided underdog this weekend vs. top seeded Stanford.
Sylvia Hatchell, though, has her team playing at an extremely high level, and this is one team that doesn't shy away from challenges put before them, no matter how big. The Tar Heels were somewhat inconsistent this year, as they battled through injury and chemistry issues. After a 14-0 start, the Tar Heels dropped 3 of their next 6. Another 5 game winning streak was followed by a difficult 4 game losing streak to end the regular season.
The return of Jessica Breland from her year away for treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma and her steadily increasing role evolved, and Coach Hatchell shifted lineups, trying to find the right combinations. In fact only the guard combination of Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid started all 36 games this year. Hatchell has righted the ship though, getting to the ACC Finals and falling to Duke before winning their first two NCAA tournament games over Fresno State and a strong Kentucky team that was seeded higher than them.
One thing is certain for Saturday's game vs. Stanford. The Tar Heels are going to try to open things up, put the throttle down, and see if the Cardinal can keep up with them as they play their usual fast paced up and down the court style of basketball. Coach Hatchell considers her team's style of play not only good for the team and good for her players, but she considers it good and important for the continued growth of women's basketball in general. She refers to it as "fun basketball" and feels the more offense the better.
This edition of the North Carolina women's team is tailor made for Coach Hatchell's style of play. DeGraffenreid puts the throttle down, with Lucas as an outstanding three point threat. Breland is a strong inside/outside presence, and there is size and rebounding in Chay Shegog and Waltiea Rolle. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt plays aggressive shut down defense. Nine players play at least 15 minutes per game on the team. Who better to describe the players and what to look for than Coach Hatchell herself.
The ACC is always an extremely difficult conference, and this year UNC had to play on the road vs. tournament teams Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Duke. The team has been highly successful on neutral courts as well this season, going 8-1 to date, the only loss being to Duke in the ACC championship game. They have been in the tournament every year, so going to a place like Spokane and facing a pro-Stanford crowd shouldn't have much of an effect on the team. The difficulty of the conference schedule in particular has Coach Hatchell feeling the team is prepared.
A recurring game on the UNC schedule has become the annual game vs. Connecticut. Coach Hatchell loves playing the Huskies, and has a tremendous amount of respect for the program, Coach Auriemma and for the fans in Connecticut. She would love to continue this series, and makes it clear how much she enjoys it. Ironically, in this week where Auriemma himself called out the fans for not coming out to their early round tournament games, I have a clip where Coach Hatchell raves about the Connecticut fans, and talks about how much they love the game of basketball.
Stanford's strength is clearly in the paint, where Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen work with the bevy of post players on their roster to control the game and tempo. Accordingly, it is imperative that UNC get a big performance out of Jessica Breland Saturday night. Breland has been improving as the season has progressed and she has gotten more and more comfortable with playing again. She really turned it on in the ACC tournament, pouring in 28 points vs. Miami in the semi-finals and 27 in the finals vs. Duke. She has combined this with strong rebounding to be once again the dominant force and potential number one draft pick that so many predicted she'd become. I talked to Coach Hatchell about Jessica and her return to UNC.
No discussion of North Carolina women's basketball would be complete without talking about the 1994 championship game, won by Charlotte Smith on an amazing shot with 0.7 seconds to go. Trailing 59-57 to Louisiana Tech, Coach Hatchell called Smith's number for the game winning shot, which occurred right in front of her. So did she expect the shot to go in? We talked about that moment that will live forever in NCAA women's championship history.
Does North Carolina have what it takes to knock off top-seeded Stanford? I wouldn't take a Stanford win for granted. They have the experience, they have the firepower and they have the leadership. And they have Jessica Breland. I wouldn't bet against Breland overcoming any odds at this point! Regardless of the result, it's been a great season once again at Chapel Hill, and even though Breland, Lucas and DeGraffenreid will all be leaving after this season, 9 players will return for next season, when the Tar Heels figure to reload and make another run at the ACC title playing "fun basketball."
The entire interview with Sylvia Hatchell can be heard here.