Commentary

Hatchell, Heels ready to start anew

Originally Published: January 25, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- When the alarm goes off Monday morning, a new week begins for the members of the North Carolina women's basketball team. Like the week that preceded it and the one that will follow, there will be the standard seven days -- 168 hours, 10,080 minutes or 604,800 seconds, depending on your preferred measure.

[+] EnlargeUNC
AP Photo/Gail BurtonNo. 3 North Carolina lost by 30 to UConn last Monday, then by four to Georgia Tech on Thursday and then by six to No. 13 Maryland on Sunday.

But there is no way the week to come can be anywhere near as long as the week that was.

Dressed in pink jerseys Sunday night in memory of former NC State coach Kay Yow, a close friend of Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell, North Carolina lost 77-71 against No. 13 Maryland. The Tar Heels' third consecutive defeat closed a stretch of seven days that first tested their collective character as a basketball team and then forced them to consider that the game is only a temporary part of a fleeting existence measured more by deeds than wins.

"It's been a tough nine days, with the games and the situation with Kay," Hatchell said after a game in which she drew a rare technical foul and ended up seated unceremoniously on the ground at one point after losing her footing on the sideline. "That's a part of playing at this level. You just regroup and keep moving on."

When Jan. 19 dawned, North Carolina was ranked No. 2 in the nation and was seen by many as the only team with a realistic shot of sharing the court with Connecticut as an equal. An 88-58 loss to the Huskies changed that, as 30-point losses at home are wont to do. Then a sloppy 66-62 loss at Georgia Tech on Thursday changed the ACC standings, with Hatchell's team slipping behind Duke and Florida State, a situation exacerbated Sunday with the loss at Maryland and Duke's win against Georgia Tech to remain unbeaten.

All of which paled in comparison to the news Saturday morning that Yow had passed away. Hatchell had seen Yow Wednesday night, had known things were nearing the end and had said goodbye with a final round of stories shared with a friend.

Then she had to go back to coaching a team through what was at once a meaningless diversion from death and a potentially season-defining stretch of games.

"In nine days, we've had Virginia, UConn, at Georgia Tech and at Maryland," Hatchell said. "And I told [the players], 'Nobody else has had that challenge or accepted that challenge.' And yeah, we haven't been as successful as we wanted to be. But I guess what doesn't kill you, makes you better. So hopefully -- I mean, this definitely has not killed us and it will make us stronger."

Results aside, North Carolina has the talent to beat any of those teams, including UConn on the right night for the Tar Heels and the wrong night for the Huskies.

Jessica Breland put up 18 points and 12 rebounds against Maryland before leaving under assistance with a sprained left ankle (she had been battling a right ankle problem), and has the skills to do that on a nightly basis while simultaneously changing games on defense.

The Tar Heels hit 6 of 18 3-point attempts against the Terrapins and can justifiably feel they had an off night shooting the ball. The trio of Italee Lucas, Cetera DeGraffenreid and Heather Claytor give them balance behind the arc that hasn't been there recently.

And while the Tar Heels still play fast and loose with the ball on too many occasions, often at the urging of their coach, they followed up a disastrous 25-turnover game against Georgia Tech by committing just 14 turnovers against Maryland. Barring a total collapse down the stretch, DeGraffenreid is going to lead the ACC in assist-turnover ratio, a fact that in other circumstances would be worth the spotlight unto itself.

Where things begin to come apart for this team, especially in relation to recent editions under Hatchell, is when the ball leaves a shooter's hands. UConn nearly had more offensive rebounds than North Carolina had field goals in Monday's demolition job, and Maryland nearly repeated that performance Sunday night.

With one more rebound from Lynetta Kizer, the Terrapins would have had three players with double-doubles. And from a sequence late in the first half, when Maryland created five or six shots in a single possession, to Kizer crashing in to corral a rare second-half miss from Kristi Toliver, the home team had complete and total control of the glass.

If a Tar Heel leading the conference in assist-turnover ratio is stunning, one of Hatchell's teams ranking nearer to last than first in the league in rebounding margin must be a sign of the end. Hatchell's decision to start reserves Trinity Bursey, Laura Broomfield and She'la White as a reward for their success in recent rebounding drills in practice might have made for a curious tactical move in a game of this magnitude. But that's what it has come to for a team that seemed at the time like it was in a funk a season ago when only outrebounding opponents by nine boards a game.

"We've done a lot of rebounding drills for the past few weeks, and I guess it's just a matter of mentality," Lucas said. "[It's] just getting in the right position, boxing out the player before going to get the ball. It's just all positioning. We just need to keep working at it and move forward."

The truth is this team is not constructed to dominate on the glass. Breland is an agile player who can get to balls quickly, but freshman Chay Shegog was the only player Sunday who could consistently bang against Kizer and Demauria Liles. North Carolina has the kind of length and depth to be an opportunistic rebounding team, but that's going to take a consistent widespread effort.

"Even us as guards, we need to get in there," Lucas said. "We can't rely on just the posts to get all the rebounds. We need to box out, come back and help out with the rebound. That's going to be a major part; rebounding wins championship games and we just need to get that back together."

In the end, Maryland earned its win by simply outplaying North Carolina, much as UConn did as the week began. Marissa Coleman and Toliver were the two best players on the court for much of the game, and the Terrapins were better able to handle what developed into a physical game.

But it's also tougher to imagine a more taxing stretch of seven days than the one Hatchell completed when the final buzzer sounded, even if she wasn't looking for pity.

"I'm tough; I love a challenge," Hatchell said. "Like I said, we've accepted the challenge of playing all these top teams. This will help us, as far as when tournament time comes. But I'm tough. I'll pass it on; the kids will be tough. This may be what helps us when it comes NCAA time."

First comes Friday, when much of the basketball community will gather in Cary, N.C., to say a final farewell to Yow. Hatchell said she'll likely give her team the day off from practice so they can attend the funeral as a group.

Even in defeat Sunday night, the Tar Heels needed only to look at their jerseys for a reminder of what matters most. Not the blue lettering that spelled out the name of a program suddenly fallen on hard times, but the pink that surrounded it.

"I think they looked pretty good," Hatchell said. "That was about the only good thing out there tonight for us. But I think they win the fashion award. But no, we did all this in memory of Kay."

Monday begins with a chance to start anew. Because they can.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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