Young Tar Heels grow into NCAA Sweet 16 threat

Mar. 28, 2014 @ 04:13 PM

Dazzled, dazed, and downed 62-53 Tuesday, the No. 5 seed Michigan State Spartans didn’t have a prayer against the No. 4 seed UNC tidal wave that crashed over them. But Tar Heel defensive sentinel Stephanie Mavunga did.

“I had a big smile on my face at the beginning of the game, and we got in that little huddle, and Stephanie gives us a prayer there,” associate head coach Andrew Calder recalled. “And Stephanie says, ‘Please let Coach Calder continue to have that wide grin on his face the rest of the night.’”

Prayer granted, but what a difference a game makes.

Tuesday’s intensity, wrapped in that comfortable pre-game banter, was in sharp contrast to the deer-in-the-headlights look the 26-9 Tar Heels flashed for some three-quarters of their near-demise against UT Martin in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round on Sunday. Down 18 points, it took a comeback for the ages to seal the 60-58 victory.

This richly layered squad of standout players — all undergraduates — is a collection of quick learners coming of age as they head to the Sweet 16 at Stanford University’s Maples Pavilion. Sunday’s clash against No. 1 seed South Carolina (ESPN2, 7 p.m. EDT) will be a rematch of a game the Tar Heels won 74-66 earlier this season.

And you got the sense when national freshman of the year Diamond DeShields said prior to the South Carolina-Oregon State game on Tuesday “I don’t mind at all” which team Carolina would play, she really doesn’t.

“You’ve got to beat someone to be someone. So if it’s South Carolina or Oregon State, they’re both great teams. Different teams, but I’m looking forward to whichever challenge gets thrown at us,” said DeShields, a shooting guard who had just seized the national freshman scoring record with 616 total points.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought game regardless of who we have to play. We’ve got to refocus and get ready,” said the lightning bolt in a 6-1 frame.

“It’s just a hard work ethic” that drives Carolina, said 6-0 freshman guard Allisha Gray. “Next year will be too late. We want it now. The goal is to get to Nashville and Final Four.”

No. 8-ranked South Carolina (29-4), the top seed in the Stanford regional, thumped Cal State Northridge 73-58 and dumped Oregon State 78-69 in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. This is the Gamecocks’ second trip to the regional semifinals in the past three years. UNC’s last Sweet 16 appearance was in 2011.

No. 12-ranked UNC is 9-4 this year against teams in the Top 20, including the then-No. 10 Gamecocks on Dec. 18.

Mavunga had a double-double to lead the Tar Heels, scoring 20 and snagging 12 rebounds. DeShields (17), 6-2 sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel (14) and Gray (12) also scored in double figures.

The Tar Heels’ ability to morph into whatever form is required to win is a testament to their you-don’t-have-to-tell-us-twice, lesson-learned savvy.

For instance, UT Martin came within less than a minute of a stunning upset by controlling the tempo, using the shot clock, and running a triangle-and-two defense, a hybrid set in which three players go zone and two play man-to-man, against a UNC team that seemed confused by the configuration.

Falling behind 36-27 at the half, Michigan State realized it was losing — badly — at the running game against the superior Tar Heels.

“Coach told us that (before the game), but I don’t really think we understood just how aggressive they were,” said Michigan State’s 6-3 center Jasmine Hines, the Spartans’ top scorer with 14 points. Hoping to repeat UT Martin’s success, the Spartans switched to the triangle and two to start the second half.

“We scored six points right away, so they went out of it and called time out right away,” Calder said. “We had to adjust to that since UT Martin played that the other night, and we knew exactly what we needed to run.”

The Tar Heels also learned a vital lesson in humility in the opening round. During pre-game interviews before the UT Martin game, they exuded so much certainty that they were asked — (they denied it) — if they were overconfident.

Asked Tuesday night if the win against Michigan State gives the Tar Heels a boost going into the Sweet 16, a chastened and wiser DeShields responded: “It definitely raises confidence amongst the team, but you can’t let that get the best of you. We were confident against UT Martin and they came out and shocked us.”

The Tar Heels have shown they are not afraid to play close, and rugged. Both teams it dispatched on the way to the regional semifinals took note of that UNC brand.

“I thought it was an unbelievably physical game within five feet of the basket,” said UT Martin coach Kevin McMillan. “It got real strange.”

“I felt like off the ball, on the ball, there was a lot of … aggressive physicality. There were times I think we responded to it, but we just can’t overcome it,” said Spartans coach Suzy Merchant. “The physical play was something that I was disappointed in.”

It is abundantly clear that DeShields is the on-court leader.

“They feed off of her,” Merchant said. “When she’s confident, they’re confident.”

DeShields recognizes what she believes is a God-given talent.

“I think I’m able to entertain with my athletic abilities, and, I guess, with my demeanor, my swagger on the court,” DeShields said. “People love it, people hate it. It don’t matter to me. I’m going to keep doing it.”