STANFORD, Calif. — No. 4-seeded North Carolina will be the underdog when it takes on No. 2 Stanford in Tuesday night’s Stanford Regional final at 9.
The Tar Heels have a less experienced team and will playing in front of what could be a sold-out Maples Pavilion crowd. At stake is a trip to the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.
The major question for the Tar Heels (27-9) is the health of star freshman guard Diamond DeShields, who hurt her ankle and knee during Sunday’s win against top-seeded South Carolina. DeShields played through the pain, scoring 19 points in 32 minutes.
“The ankle and knee are doing well,” she said Monday. “It will be a game-time decision. I’m doing treatment. It will be up to the doc to tell me I can’t play. If it’s up to me, I’m playing. They’re going to have to take me down and strap me into a chair to stop me from playing.”
The Tar Heels start three freshmen, while the Cardinal (32-3) start three seniors, a junior and a freshman. A noisy Maples Pavilion could be tough to deal with for the young Tar Heels.
“We just see this game as another game,” North Carolina sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel said. “We love playing away. We love the booing and the fans cheering against us. We look at that as motivation. These freshmen are more experienced than some upperclassmen. I’m not worried about experience. There are no worries.”
“North Carolina has very athletic, very talented players,” Stanford forward Mikaela Ruef said. “Maybe they don’t have tournament experience, but that isn’t always necessary as you can see with the Kentucky men. They are a bunch of freshmen, too. They’re a dangerous team and we’re going to be ready for them.”
Stanford All-America forward Chiney Ogwumike agrees.
“Talent spills over in many of their athletes,” Ogwumike said. “It will pose a big challenge for us, defensively. It will be interesting in who will step up and guard DeShields because she is talented on the wing, especially her mid-range shots. Their posts are relentless on the glass. Pursuing the ball will be huge for us.”
What will also be huge will be rebounding. The Tar Heels held their own on the boards against the Gamecocks.
“Rebounding will be major,” North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said. “Ogwumike averages almost five offensive rebounds a game. Ogwumike is difficult to box out because she reads the way the ball comes off the rim so well. She reads her teammates so well.
“She can rebound out of her area better than anyone in the country. We have to limit their second-chance opportunities and get some second-chance opportunities of our own.”
The Tar Heels must find a way to keep Ogwumike, Stanford’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, in check. She averages 26.6 points and 12.2 rebounds, but Calder said it’s more than just Ogwumike.
“The biggest concern is that Stanford is very talented and well-coached,” Calder said. “Their coach does a great job with adjustments. She loves to play up and down the court and we love to play up and down the court. It will be great game from that standpoint.”
North Carolina has another extra incentive. Should it reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007, coach Sylvia Hatchell has promised she would join them in Nashville. Hatchell has been away from the bench all season as she received treatment for leukemia.
North Carolina won its only NCAA women’s basketball crown in 1994, exactly 20 years ago.