Sylvia Hatchell has 936 wins as a women’s basketball coach, but few were sweeter than the season opener Friday afternoon.
No. 13 North Carolina shrugged off a slow start, eventually sprinting to an 83-49 romp against Howard at Carmichael Arena. It was UNC’s 14th straight season-opening win.
It would have been another routine victory over a heavy underdog if not for the fact that Hatchell was coaching in her first official game since being away from the sidelines all of last season while undergoing treatment for leukemia.
The Hall of Fame coach was constantly in contact with the team and did attend a few home games late last season. But when she did, she wore a medical mask and sat with her doctor in one of the boxes above the Carmichael floor as long-time assistant Andrew Calder ran the team. The Tar Heels responded by going 27-10 and winning three games in the NCAA tournament.
But on Friday she was right back on the sidelines, as full of energy as ever.
“We’re glad to be here,” said Hatchell, who is 936-331 overall and 664-251 at UNC. “We didn’t start off good as far as making shots, but we got a lot of good looks. If we’d shot like we normally do, we would have had a lot more points.
“Every day is good when I open my eyes. It’s just good to be here. But I enjoy being around these kids. They’re great kids, they really are. They just make me feel so good because they’re so full of spirit and competitiveness. You can’t help but feel young and vivacious and full of energy around them.”
Allisha Gray led the Tar Heels with 19 points, followed by Xylina McDaniel with 16 and freshman Jamie Cherry with 12. Brittany Rountree finished with 10 points, while Stephanie Mavunga added eight to go with her 11 rebounds and four blocks.
UNC shot 44.3 percent to the Bison’s 33.9 and barely won the rebound battle 43-42, but committed only nine turnovers to the visitors’ 27.
“Our ladies competed very well against a powerhouse program,” said Howard’s second-year coach, Tennille Adams, whose team went 11-20 last season. “We talk a lot about that. It’s easy to be a fan in this arena, to come see all the banners and be in awe. But we wanted to come out with a good mentality today.”
Cheyenne Brown led Howard with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
UNC led 46-24 at halftime behind 12 points from Gray and 11 from McDaniel.
“It was great having (Hatchell) back,” said Gray, a sophomore. “I definitely feel like she brings something different. Coach Hatchell is the mom we need on the bench. Ivory (Latta) does a great job, but Coach Hatchell is like the woman who has been through everything.”
The Bison apparently hadn’t read the script, as they made life difficult for the hosts for most of the first half.
There were two ties and four lead changes before UNC finally took the lead for good with 8 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first half on a 3-pointer from Rountree that made it 19-16. That started a 24-2 run that removed any doubt about the final outcome.
“It actually felt like my freshman year all over again,” said McDaniel, a junior. “And that was a pretty good year. Having (Hatchell) back made everybody happy.”
The Tar Heels’ next game is at home at 2 p.m. Sunday against No. 23 UCLA, which lost in overtime Friday at James Madison, 91-87.