With the sting of a 36-point loss to arch-rival Duke just minutes old, North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell sounded equal parts disappointed and relieved Sunday that a trying regular season had ended so she and her team could turn their attention to the ACC Tournament.
“Regular season is over,” Hatchell said. “Time to get ready for tournament time.”
The ACC’s 39th annual postseason championship opens Wednesday in the Greensboro Coliseum. UNC (14-17, 4-12 ACC), seeded 13th, tips off the first round when it faces 12th seed Pittsburgh (12-17, 4-12) at 1 p.m.
In Wednesday’s other games, 10th seed Wake Forest (15-14, 6-10) takes on 15th seed Clemson (4-25, 0-16) at 3:30 p.m., and 11th seed Virginia Tech (17-12, 5-11) meets 14th seed Boston College (14-15, 2-14) at 6:30 p.m.
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Pitt defeated UNC 76-60 on Feb. 18 in Chapel Hill, using a 37-8 run in the first half to take a 45-16 halftime lead. That was the largest halftime deficit the Tar Heels faced all season until Duke outscored them 30-8 in the second quarter Sunday in Carmichael Arena to post a 53-22 halftime bulge. The Blue Devils would coast to a 93-57 victory.
Two years removed from leading her Tar Heels within one win of a Final Four berth and a year after a Sweet 16 run, Hatchell finds herself ushering in the early risers for the play-in round of the ACC Tournament.
The veteran coach has only six scholarship players on hand because of injuries and an exodus of transfers in the wake of the academic scandal and NCAA investigation at UNC. Hatchell added five walk-ons for depth, including senior UNC All-American volleyball player Paige Neuenfeldt, a 6-foot-2 senior.
“Except for this year, it’s probably five, six or seven years since we’ve even had a walk-on,” Hatchell said. “For years we didn’t even have tryouts because we didn’t have a slot.”
The lack of depth has been especially telling on the backcourt trio of freshmen Destinee Walker and Stephanie Watts and sophomore Jamie Cherry.
Walker and Cherry rank first and fourth nationally (1-2 in the ACC) in minutes played, and Watts is seventh in the ACC. All three average more than 33 minutes per game. They are also the Tar Heels’ top three scorers, led by Watts with 14.5 ppg. But Hatchell said she has had to scale back the hard work in practice, with less than positive results.
“When they’re making mistakes, I can’t take them out,” Hatchell said. “That’s always motivation. We have to be able to compete and battle in practice. We’ve been cutting back to save their legs. We may have lost some of that physical edge.
“It kills me to see teams score on us (easily), because of our (lack of) size and numbers. We’ve always been great defensively.”
“But, it’s over,” Hatchell added. “ACC Tournament time is here. I just talked to the team downstairs about what the ACC Tournament means and how well we’ve always played. I told them, I think 15 of the last 22 years we’ve played for the championship. … We’ve done that with some teams that were not seeded that high, so we’ve got a tough battle, but I want to go over there and make some noise.”
No. 13 UNC vs. No. 12 Pitt
When: 1 p.m. Wednesday