UNC women's postmortem: No tears, optimism reigns
The most devastating scenes in college sports are often the losing locker rooms at the NCAA Tournament, when seniors realize their careers are over and their teammates wonder if they just missed their best chance to achieve their ultimate goal.
Yet there were no tears from the players after North Carolina lost to Stanford 74-65 on Tuesday night, no deep silences, no emotional hugs. The Tar Heels were mostly upbeat in the locker room about 20 minutes after their season ended one game short of the Final Four.
“We definitely proved a lot of people wrong and we surprised ourselves at some point,” freshman guard Diamond DeShields said. “We made it a lot farther then most would have thought and we gave a lot of hope to people back in Chapel Hill. We can’t hang our heads at all. It was a hard-fought season but we had a ton of success. We just have to be proud and the team will get better.”
UNC had no seniors on the roster this season, and freshmen accounted for 60 percent of the team’s scoring, the highest percentage in the country. Naismith Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell is cancer-free and is planning to return to the sideline after missing the season while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
As DeShields spoke just outside the locker room, she was interrupted by an embrace from Ann Meyers, a Hall of Fame player who is now the general manager of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
“You’re something special,” Meyers said. “Next year, boy, they’re going to know.”
DeShields won national freshman of the year honors after scoring more points than any freshman in ACC history (648). But she’s not the only rookie who gives the Tar Heels reasons for optimism.
Allisha Gray also made the all-ACC freshman team and led UNC with 19 points and nine rebounds against the Cardinal. She made three straight 3s as the Tar Heels silenced the crowd of 6,145 by taking a 22-9 lead, and her 42 percent shooting from behind the arc is second in UNC history.
Forward Stephanie Mavunga was third nationally among freshmen with 12 double-doubles, and her 304 rebounds are the sixth-most by a first-year player in ACC history. And while point guard Jessica Washington was the lone member of UNC’s top-ranked four-player recruiting class who came off the bench against Stanford, she made a crucial 3 that gave the Tar Heels its final lead, 63-62 with four minutes left.
“Jess has struggled with her confidence as far as taking shots,” DeShields said. “I don’t know why, because she’s very able, as you (saw). I wasn’t able to get open shots in the second half; Allisha wasn’t able to get open shots. So I told Jess at the timeout, ‘You’ve got to take the shot for us,’ and she did. Like I said, she’s very capable.”
The Tar Heels will have senior leadership next year, especially on the perimeter with starting point guard Latifah Coleman and guards Brittany Rountree and Danielle Butts.
UNC should also improve its outside shooting with the return of junior Megan Buckland, who shot 36 percent from behind the arc in 2012-13 but tore her ACL in the second game this season, and the addition of five-star recruit Jamie Cherry of West Craven High School, who made a state-record 12 3-pointers during a playoff game last month.
UNC is also one of four finalists for 6-5 forward A’ja Wilson, the top-ranked recruit in the Class of 2014, along with South Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee.
The returning players should also have the benefit of a stable coaching staff and the experience of playing under Hatchell, who offered encouragement and advice to the team throughout the season but was forced to stepped away from on-court coaching because of her diagnosis.
Her absence put Hatchell’s 27-year assistant, Andrew Calder, in charge of the team. His staff included first-year assistant coach Ivory Latta and Billy Lee, who was moved up from his previous role as UNC’s director of video and scouting.
A young team combined with coaches in new roles could have been too difficult to overcome — especially before everyone knew what would happen to Hatchell, who announced in January that her cancer is in full remission.
But Calder’s presence helped steer UNC to 10 wins over AP top 20 teams, a win over an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed (South Carolina) for the first time since 1994 and a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time in six years.
Calder teared up on Tuesday during what was likely his final post-game news conference, thanking Hatchell and the UNC administration for trusting him to run the team and then taking the blame for the loss, suggesting that the outcome might have been different if Hatchell was on the sidelines.
“We had the talent to get to the Final Four, and I didn’t get us there,” Calder said. “For that, I’m sorry.”
But Calder was smiling by the end as he thought about the team’s future — even offering a lighthearted remark to the Stanford-based media about Tiger Woods missing the Masters.
“We had some outstanding players and we battled extremely hard,” Calder said. “But next year we have a lot of players coming back, and we have a Hall of Fame coach that’s going to work with them every day.”
|STANFORD 74, NORTH CAROLINA 65|
Percentages: FG .417, FT .667.
3-Point Goals: 9-22, .409 (Gray 3-6, McDaniel 2-3, Rountree 1-1, Washington 1-2, Coleman 1-3, DeShields 1-6, Butts 0-1).
Team Rebounds: 1.
Blocked Shots: 2 (McDaniel, Butts).
Turnovers: 13 (McDaniel 4, Coleman 3, DeShields 3, Mavunga 2, Gray).
Steals: 4 (Coleman, DeShields, Mavunga, Butts).
Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .500, FT .636.
3-Point Goals: 9-20, .450 (Ruef 3-5, B. Samuelson 3-7, Orrange 2-3, Thompson 1-4, K. Samuelson 0-1).
Team Rebounds: 2.
Blocked Shots: 3 (Ogwumike 2, Thompson).
Turnovers: 13 (Ogwumike 5, Thompson 3, Ruef 2, B. Samuelson 2, Orrange).
Steals: 5 (Thompson 2, Orrange, Ogwumike, James).
Technical Fouls: None.
Officials_Lisa Jones, Cameron Inouye, Melissa Barlow.