Freshmen lead UNC, Michigan State in NCAA battle
With a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on the line, two of the hottest scoring freshmen in the nation will square off on teams featuring young rosters, powerful post players and deep, effective benches when No. 4 North Carolina hosts No. 5 Michigan State at 7 tonight in Carmichael Arena (ESPN2)
“We have to jump on them early because Michigan State’s not a team to play with,” said UNC 6-3 freshman forward Stephanie Mavunga. “So we have to set the tone from the start…and just have faith, and God willing we’ll get the win.”
Setting the tone from the start has been an obstacle all season for the slow-starting Tar Heels.
“We haven’t figured it out yet. It’s still happening,” said Diamond DeShields, UNC’s national freshman of the year. With 592 points, the 6-1 guard is poised to set the national freshman scoring record tonight if she gets just 3 of her season average 18 points.
“Now is the time for us to pick it up,” DeShields said. “You can expect a better start tomorrow.”
The Tar Heels barely escaped Sunday’s first round scrape with UT-Martin, coming back from an 18-point deficit midway in the second half to win 60-58.
Conversely, the Big 10 champion Spartans pounded Hampton 91-61 on Sunday to advance, led by outstanding redshirt freshman Aerial Powers. The 6-0 guard scored 26 points, had 18 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. With 440 total points, Powers is the only freshman in the nation to have at least 400 points, 200 rebounds and 75 assists.
“We were impressed with her, either shooting the basketball or driving the basketball to the basket,” said UNC associate head coach Andrew Calder. The Spartans’ style of play works to Powers’ advantage.
“They start five players that can shoot the 3, which spreads the floor,” opening up the driving game, Calder said. “They have a very good power game inside.”
With its control game and inside power, Michigan State most resembles Maryland among teams that UNC played this year, Calder said. The Tar Heels split with the Terps, losing 79-70 on Jan. 5, then beating Maryland 73-70 in the ACC Tournament on March 7.
Mavunga said going up against the Spartans’ tough inside game featuring 6-3 senior forward Annalise Pickrel and 6-4 junior forward Becca Mills will get her fired up.
“We’ve played numerous big teams this year. We played Duke, we played Maryland, Notre Dame,” Mavunga said.
“We just need to slow down and take our time a little bit more, especially since the girls are taller,” Mavunga said.
“So we might have to alter our shot a little bit to make sure we don’t get our shot blocked. They might be longer and more athletic, so they can get their hands in the passing lane,” she said. “I think we just have to make the little adjustments and not get too far out of our game.”
Mavunga is no slouch inside, either. She had three blocked shots against UT-Martin, giving her 86 for the season, to set UNC’s freshman blocked shot record.
“It means a lot because that’s my favorite part of the game,” Mavunga said.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I love to score. Oh my goodness, I love to get steals. I like to make assists. I like to pass the ball,’” Mavunga said.
“I love blocking shots, the feeling you get when you stopped the shot. It’s like, ‘Don’t bring that here,’” she said.
Like Mavunga and DeShields, 6-0 freshman guard Allisha Gray said nerves took hold of the young Tar Heels squad in their NCAA Tournament debut 15 days after their last game, in the ACC Tournament.
“I was definitely nervous. The gym to me felt totally different. The atmosphere, it didn’t even feel like our gym. Even the lights felt different,” Gray said. “But now my jitters are gone for this game. We just had to get back in the flow of playing a real basketball game.”
Calder hopes playing on UNC's home-court will be an advantage tonight. Chapel Hill is rated the 9th toughest place to play, according to NCAA won-loss statistics. Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said they're accustomed to playing in hostile arenas in the Big Ten -- "When you walk into a venue everybody hates you."
UNC’s power is what stands out most to Merchant.
“They’re not 6-5, 6-6 kids, and we’ve faced that in our league. It’s literally how strong they are at moving you around so they can go get the rebound, and that’s really, really impressive,” Merchant said. “We have some bigger kids that we hope can combat some of that, and that will be a big goal for us.”
Merchant said she wasn’t going to give away her game plan, but noted high-scoring UT-Martin slowed its game down and nearly pulled off an upset against the run-and-gun Tar Heels.
“I don’t know if anybody can run with them. They’re as good as anybody I’ve ever seen 1 through 5 in transition, and when they have their transition game going that’s impressive,” Merchant said.
While Merchant has talent on the bench, she gives the edge there to UNC.
“Each of their players is so different, and so you have to be able to defend just about everything, every type of player, so it makes it a lot tougher,” Pickrel said.
“You definitely can’t take a breath when one of their players comes in off the bench … because she’s probably just as good, can get to the rim, can shoot a 3, can shoot a pull-up jumper,” said 5-11 senior guard Klarissa Bell.