North Carolina freshmen ready for NCAA test
North Carolina forward Diamond DeShields, the espnW National Freshman of the Year, hasn’t been fazed by much during her first season of college basketball. But she seemed truly puzzled while watching the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship selection show Monday night.
“I was shocked at how confused I was,” DeShields said. “I didn't know what was going on and still don't understand the seeds and the brackets. I guess me being a player I just care about who we play. I don't really care who other teams are playing on the other side of the country. I just want to know who we are playing and get ready for that game because that could be the last game of the season. “
DeShields received her answers soon enough. UNC (24-9) earned the No. 4 seed in the Stanford Region and will host No. 13 Tennessee-Martin (24-7) in the first round on Sunday at Carmichael Arena (3 p.m., ESPN). If the Tar Heels win, they will host either No. 5 Michigan State (22-9) or No. 12 Hampton (28-4) in the second round Tuesday at 7 p.m.
DeShields is one of four freshmen who have taken on major roles for the Tar Heels, who finished the season ranked 12th in the final AP poll despite having no seniors on the roster.
UNC was already pre-determined as a host site, which should make the freshmen’s transition to the NCAA Tournament an easier one.
“Chapel Hill is a comfortable environment for us,” DeShields said. “We will have a home court advantage as far as the fans go. They have done a great job of supporting us thus far so I don't expect anything less of them this weekend. Home court advantage exists so playing at home will definitely help. “
Then again, UNC only went 4-4 at home during conference play, including losses to unranked teams Virginia Tech, Miami and Syracuse.
The Tar Heels may be challenged by UT Martin, which won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the fourth straight season and rank third in the country in scoring at 84.6 points a game. The Skyhawks are led by OVC player of the year Heather Butler (23.7 points a game) and three-time OVC Tournament MVP Jasmine Newsome (19.4).
Butler, who ranks 18th on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list, has scored in double figures in every game of her career and is only three shy of the NCAA 3-point record of 392. Newsome scored 25 points in the OVC title game win over Belmont – her ninth straight 20-point game in the OVC tournament.
After that could be 20th-ranked Michigan State, who finished tied with Penn State atop the Big Ten standings. The Spartans will face five-time MEAC champion Hampton at Carmichael Arena at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday (ESPN2).
Whoever emerges from the Chapel Hill portion of the bracket will advance to Stanford, where top-seeded South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Penn State could potentially be waiting. UNC beat the Gamecocks 74-66 on a neutral court in December.
None of the current Tar Heels have ever made it to the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels missed the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and lost in the second round last year as a No. 3 seed to No. 6 Delaware, though the game took place at Delaware.
“I'm excited for my second trip to the NCAA Tournament,” sophomore Xylina McDaniel said. “Last year we fell short too early. Since we're playing at home I know it will be very exciting, very comfortable for us. I think everyone is ready and it’s going to be a fun journey.”
NOTE – A team spokesman said that “it’s still a possibility” that Sylvia Hatchell could return to the bench in time for the NCAA Tournament. The Hall of Fame coach missed the regular season while undergoing treatments for leukemia, which is now in remission. But she still needs approval from her doctors before she can return to on-court coaching. Associate head coach Andrew Calder has taken over in Hatchell’s absence.