CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) The North Carolina Tar Heels will open NCAA tournament play Sunday without Hall of Fame head coach Sylvia Hatchell on the bench for the first time in nearly three decades.
Longtime Tar Heels assistant coach Andrew Calder said Hatchell is still recovering from her latest round of chemotherapy treatment and won’t help coach fourth-seeded UNC against No. 13 UT Martin.
Hatchell, 62, was diagnosed with leukemia in October and hasn’t coached this season.
She had said she wanted to get back in time to work as a supporting bench coach for the NCAA tournament.
”She’s a little bit down right now and working her way back up from her last treatment,” Calder said Saturday at a news conference.
Calder wouldn’t rule out Hatchell returning to the bench at a later date if North Carolina advances in the NCAA tournament. If the Tar Heels win Sunday, they face the winner of No. 5 Michigan State-No. 12 Hampton.
Calder, 60, has been working alongside Hatchell since she arrived in Chapel Hill 28 years ago.
During that span, Hatchell has coached North Carolina to six 30-win seasons, eight Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, three Final Fours and the 1994 NCAA championship.
Now it’s Calder’s time to call the shots on the big stage.
”We have a great staff and the players have been fantastic, so I know that we’re prepared,” Calder said. ”Coach Hatchell always prepares her assistant coaches to be head coaches one day.”
Calder said Hatchell has remained involved by reviewing practice and game video, conferring with the staff.
”We are still following her game plan for this team,” Calder said.
Hatchell addressed her players on Saturday at the team hotel, giving them some advice for the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel said Hatchell told players she wished she could be on the bench with them, but that they’re in good hands with Calder.
”She talked about starting a new six-game season and if you win six you have a national championship,” McDaniel said.
Calder said Hatchell plans to attend the game as a spectator.
In the other game at Chapel Hill, Michigan State (22-9) looks to bounce back from a 28-point drubbing at the hands of Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals against a Hampton team that has won 18 straight games.
Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said her team won’t be looking past Hampton to a potential second-round matchup with the Tar Heels.
Five things to know about the games Saturday in Chapel Hill:
SUSPENSION STANDS: Spartans point guard Kiana Johnson will not play in the NCAA tournament while continuing to serve a team-imposed suspension. She was suspended Feb. 6.
Merchant said the team misses Johnson’s ”commanding presence” on the court but that Klarissa Bell, who has replaced her at point guard, gives the Spartans more of a scoring presence. Bell led the team in scoring last season.
”In terms of the way we play and the style of play, there hasn’t been any difference,” Merchant said. ”In fact, it has made us better and stronger in some ways.”
HAMPTON’S STREAK: Hampton hasn’t lost since Dec. 30, but the Pirates only received a No. 12 seed – something that serves as motivation for Pirates senior forward Alyssa Bennett.
”People still downgrade us, but we’ll show them,” Bennett said.
Hampton is hoping to steal a page from the No. 12 seeds in the men’s tournament where three of those teams pulled upsets over No. 5 seeds to advance to the round of 32.
REBOUNDING KEY: Hampton coach David Six said if his team hopes to advance to the second round they’ll need to outrebound the taller Spartans.
”We have to box out,” Six said.
THE REAL DEAL: The Tar Heels have the most dominant freshman in the NCAA tournament field in Diamond DeShields, the daughter of former major league baseball player Delino DeShields.
DeShields is averaging 18 points and 5.4 points per game and is capable of erupting for a big outing at any time. She scored 30 points against then-No. 3 Duke and 38 against then-No. 10 NC State in the span of a week in February.
UP-TEMPO PRESSURE: UT Martin is still looking for its first NCAA tournament win. The Skyhawks made the tournament in each of the three previous seasons but have lost by 45, 23 and 33 points.
UT Martin comes in as a third-highest scoring team in women’s basketball, averaging 84.6 points per game. They play an up-tempo style with plenty of full court pressure.
The taller Tar Heels aren’t worried. ”We’ll be ready,” McDaniel said. ”It will be easy to pass around their press because we have bigger targets.”
Said UT Martin guard Heather Butler: ”We’re always the smallest team. We’re always up to a challenge.”