Before boarding a plane for California on Thursday, the North Carolina women’s basketball team received some additional motivation. If the Tar Heels win the Stanford Regional, their Hall of Fame coach will join them in Nashville for the Final Four.
“I told the girls there’s no reason you can’t get to Nashville,” Hatchell said. “And when you get there I’ll sing and dance with you on the table.”
Hatchell has missed the entire season as she received treatment for leukemia, which is now in remission. Her final scheduled chemotherapy session ran from March 13-18, which put her in line to rejoin the team next weekend.
“I’m actually doing fantastic,” said Hatchell, who removed her surgical mask to talk to reporters at Carmichael Arena Thursday. “Great, great reports from my doctors. I’ve come a long way and I’m at the end of this journey, and we’re waiting on my immune system to do one of the most favorite words that I ever say, and that is rebound. I love the word rebound, and my immune system is coming up daily and we’re just waiting on it to rebound to full strength, and it’s close to that.”
UNC (26-9), the No. 4 seed, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three seasons and will face No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday at Stanford (7 p.m., ESPN2). If the Tar Heels win, they will face either No. 2 Stanford or No. 3 Penn State for the Stanford Regional title on Tuesday, with a trip to Nashville on the line.
Hatchell was unable to attend the first and second-round games in Chapel Hill earlier this week because her doctors didn’t want to take any chances so soon after her treatment, and she was also cautioned against taking the cross-country flight to California. But Nashville is another story.
“(Dr. Pete Voorhees) told me that when the team goes to the Final Four, he smiled at me and said, ‘That is very doable,’” Hatchell said. “’I promise you I’ll have you more than 100 percent ready to go for next season, and going to Nashville is very doable.’”
That was welcome news for UNC forward Diamond DeShields, the consensus national freshman of the year.
“I believe it puts us all in a better mood and reminds us of our purpose here and what we’re playing for,” DeShields said. “It’s been more motivation all season. Winning is one step closer, every day is one step closer to her coming back. She sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Though Hatchell hasn’t been able to return to the court, she watched all the video from practices and games and stayed in regular contact with the coaches and players.
After UNC needed to overcome an 18-point second-half deficit against No. 13 Tennessee-Martin in the first round, Hatchell spoke to the team during lunch on Tuesday about changing its mentality.
“I ripped them about not being assertive and aggressive, not going after them and fast-breaking, not going after them defensively,” Hatchell said. “I said y’all are just too complacent for me. You have to get after people. You have to be the ones controlling the tempo out there.”
UNC was far more aggressive in Tuesday’s win over No. 5 Michigan State and held a 26-point lead in the second half. DeShields had her first career double-double against the Spartans, with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
Hatchell said that if UNC gets to the Final Four, she will sit on the bench but that associate head coach Andrew Calder would still run the team, as he has all season.
“I love Nashville,” Hatchell said. “That’s a great place. I’d love to be there.”
After delivering an update on her health status, Hatchell expressed her displeasure at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association for leaving DeShields off its Region 2 team, which consisted of seven players from the ACC.
“There’s no way that she should have been left off that list,” Hatchell said. “I wanted to come over here today — I had to twist my doctor’s arm this morning — and I said, ‘Look, I need to go over there and make sure that this is said.’”
A former president of the WBCA, Hatchell hopes that more the Region 2 team will be expanded to include more than seven ACC players in the future, and that “immediate action” will be taken so that DeShields would still be eligible for all-America honors this year.
“I know I’m a freshman but as far as being one of the top players in the country, I think I deserve to be on it, but that’s OK,” DeShields said. “You need motivation and you need stuff like that to happen so you don’t get complacent with where you are.”