It’s been a good week for the North Carolina women’s basketball program. On consecutive weekends the Tar Heels knocked off then top-ranked Notre Dame at home, 78-73, and followed with a 64-51 road win over previously undefeated N.C. State.
UNC (14-9, 5-4), winners of four in a row heading into Thursday night’s game against Duke (10-11, 2-7) in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m., is making noise lately, but it’s something head coach Sylvia Hatchell saw in her club since the beginning of the season.
When asked about her team’s confidence after the win Sunday over the Wolfpack, Hatchell posed a question of her own to senior guard Paris Kea, redshirt junior Stephanie Watts and sophomore Janelle Bailey, all seated next to the coach during the post-game press conference.
“Has there been a day since we started practice that I haven’t told y’all that?,” Hatchell asked the trio. “You have to understand, I’ve been doing this for 44 years, y’all are good.”
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Coming into the season the Tar Heels had the players: Kea, one of the best scorers in the league, and Bailey, the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2018, were building blocks. Plus, Hatchell was getting Watts back after shemissed all of last season with an injury.
But an 0-3 start in the ACC made it a little hard for Hatchell’s message to her team to sink in. Not for a lack of trying.
During every practice the Hall of Fame coach would gather her team and tell them how good they were. She would talk to each player individually and tell them how important they were to the team. Watts had heard the speeches before, but could sense a different tone from Hatchell this season.
“This year she knew we could be a really special team so I think she didn’t want us to be discouraged,” Watts said. “Not that we were but she wanted to make sure we weren’t discouraged by any loses earlier in the season.”
After a one-point home loss to Florida State on Jan. 6, Bailey said that the Tar Heels’ record at the time didn’t reflect how good the team was. The sophomore center felt they just needed time in practice to work out some kinks.
That game came three days after a loss at Louisville, at the time No. 2 in the country. With Kea in foul trouble, the Heels were a few missed shots in the fourth quarter away from upsetting the Cardinals. Games like that showed the what kind of potential the team had.
“We definitely learned from that game, realizing at that time they were No. 2 and the fact that we were able to play close with them,” Watts said. “It wasn’t really a shock for us, it might have been a shock for other people, but I think we realized how good we were. If we could play with the No. 2 team in the country, we can play with anybody.”
Heading into the Notre Dame game on Jan. 27, Watts could sense a difference in practice. The energy was higher. The expectations against the Fighting Irish weren’t “if” they won, but “when.” They have been rolling ever since.
“We always knew how good we could be and we just want to keep that going,” Watts said. “After we beat Notre Dame the whole team was excited and there was more energy throughout the team. I think everyone realized what we can do after the Notre Dame game.”
The Tar Heels have a motto this year: We want more. That message is to make sure despite how many top ranked teams they knock off, they never are content.
“We’ll keep playing like we’re last,” Watts said. “Our record still doesn’t show that we are as good as what we are. We want to keep it rolling.”