(AP) – North Carolina’s Hall of Fame coach is back in the NCAA Tournament.
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels (24-8) face 13th-seeded Liberty (26-6) in the first round of the Greensboro Region on Saturday and all eyes will be on Sylvia Hatchell, who returns to the sideline of her sport’s biggest event after missing last season battling leukemia.
Hatchell said Friday, ”Trust me, I don’t take it for granted.
”Not one bit,” she added. ”I’ve been smiling for the last five or six months, I guess. Everything that I do, you would think it would be old to me, but no. It’s special.”
Hatchell could not attend her team’s NCAA Tournament games last season even though the Tar Heels hosted the first two rounds.
At this time last year, she had just finished her final round of treatment and was at her self-described ”weakest point.”
”This was the down time,” Hatchell said. ”I wasn’t even able to come over because I couldn’t be around any germs because I had no immune system at all. They were just a few miles away, and I couldn’t even come watch them.”
The Tar Heels persevered, reaching the Elite Eight before losing to Stanford.
They have battled through a different kind of adversity this season, earning their 13th NCAA Tournament berth in the past 14 years despite losing starting forward Xylina McDaniel to a season-ending leg injury in December.
McDaniel averaged 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in 12 games before going down, but North Carolina still boasts some tough rebounders in 6-foot guard Allisha Gray (15.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and 6-3 all-ACC forward Stephanie Mavunga (14.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg).
Still, the 6-2 McDaniel, the daughter of ex-NBA forward Xavier McDaniel, will be missed against a Liberty team that has grabbed more rebounds and scored more points inside than its opponents in 21 consecutive games. It’s no coincidence that the Flames won 20 of those, including the last 14 in a row. Liberty starts 6-5 Katelyn Adams and 6-4 Ashley Rininger up front, and has 6-6 Catherine Kearney and 6-2 Jasmine Gardner available off the bench.
"(Liberty) being taller than me is going to be another challenge … ," Mavunga said. "That’s exactly what I thought of as soon as I saw the height differences as I watched the film."
Liberty is in the tournament for the 16th time in 19 seasons and has returned to the field of 64 after missing it for the first time in three seasons in 2013-14.
”It’s become a tradition,” coach Carey Green said. ”Last year when it didn’t happen, we were miserable for about a year.”
North Carolina has won both meetings with Liberty, taking the most recent one 88-67 on Dec. 30, 2007. The Tar Heels have won 49 straight against Big South opponents.