Young Tar Heels comfy away from home

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 11:18 PM

STANFORD, Calif. — In the two most hostile environments she’s played in this season, ACC freshman of the year Diamond DeShields had her two most productive games, scoring 38 points at N.C. State and 30 points at Duke. In her first college road game at UCLA, Allisha Gray became the first UNC freshman to score 30 points since Ivory Latta, the school’s all-time leading scorer, did it 10 years ago.

No. 12 North Carolina has played its best away from home, an unusual trend for a team in which four of the top six scorers are freshmen. The Tar Heels need for that to continue as they get ready for their most important road game of the season — an NCAA Tournament regional final at No. 6 Stanford (9 p.m., ESPN).

“It’s nice getting buckets that silence the crowd,” Gray said. “As we keep doing it, the crowd gets quieter. That’s a great feeling.”

UNC (27-9) went 11-5 at Carmichael Arena this year, including losses to three unranked ACC teams, and went 16-4 away from home.

“We love playing away,” sophomore Xylina McDaniel said. “We love the booing and the fans cheering against us. We look at that as motivation.”

Still, the numbers will be working against the fourth-seeded Tar Heels.

Stanford (32-3) has won all 15 of its home games this season, including a win over No. 3 Tennessee, and is 29-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament play at Maples Pavilion. On Sunday, the second-seeded Cardinal blew out No. 3 seed Penn State 82-57 in front of 6,700 fans to improve the record of home teams in this year’s tournament to 24-4.

Penn State coach Coquese Washington finished her press conference on Sunday by saying that she wasn’t in favor of home-court advantage in regional play.

“I think it’s an extremely difficult task,” Washington said. “In terms of the competitive equity for the NCAA Tournament, I’m glad we’re going back to neutral sites for the regionals (next year).”

But DeShields said that being on the road might help the young Tar Heels focus harder because they know how tough the opposition will be, and Latta — now an assistant coach at UNC — said there will be fewer distractions.

The Tar Heels fell behind by 18 points in their first-round game at home against Tennessee-Martin before coming back to win by two.

“It’s pretty tough playing on your home court, actually,” McDaniel said. “The other team has so much intensity and they’re ready. They have that mindset and so it’s pretty hard. We have to have the mindset, ‘We’re going to kill them on their court.’”

Perhaps more important for UNC than the location of the game is stopping Pac-12 player of the year Chiney Ogwumike, the likely top pick in this year’s WNBA draft.

A 6-4 senior, Ogwumike had 29 points and 15 rebounds against Penn State and is averaging 25.4 points and 12.8 rebounds in 10 games against ranked opponents this year (Stanford went 9-1).

“I’ve been up against some pretty good post (players), but after we play them, then I can honestly say that I’ve been up against the best post, so I’m excited,” said McDaniel, a 6-2 sophomore. “It’s really going to test me and I can finally see where I am.”

Ogwumike scored 16 points as a freshmen when Stanford and UNC last met in the 2011 Sweet 16 in Spokane, Wash. She is one of three senior starters on the Cardinal, which is playing its ninth regional final in 11 seasons. UNC, which is playing in its first regional final since 2008, doesn’t have a senior on the roster. But Tar Heels acting head coach Andrew Calder said his rookies have a high basketball IQ that makes up for their lack of experience.

UNC will rely on that to prepare for Stanford’s triangle offense, a system the Tar Heels haven’t faced this season. UNC also has a quick turnaround following Sunday night’s Sweet 16 win over top seed South Carolina.

Calder said that Hubie Brown, a friend of Sylvia Hatchell, spent 10 hours talking to the UNC coaching staff about defending the triangle several years ago. He had similar conversations with former NBA coach John Kuester — the father of UNC video coordinator Katie Kuester — and former college coach and Roy Williams assistant Jerry Green.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer had her own concerns, saying Monday that the Tar Heels’ youth made them “unpredictable in a dangerous way.”

“Some teams, you watch them and you can say, ‘This is what’s going to happen next,’” VanDerveer said. “In watching them, I don’t know what’s going to happen next because they are really young, they do a lot of things on instinct, which are good instincts. Whether it’s blocking shots or trapping people or switching on things. You’re like, ‘Really?’ But it works for them. And they’re here.”