Hatchell knows Tar Heels need a strong finish

BY foxsports • February 26, 2010

Sylvia Hatchell doesn't recognize the team wearing North Carolina jerseys this year.

The trapping defense that created so much havoc? Gone.

The high-scoring offense that fed off turnovers? Gone, too.

Instead, the coach with more than 800 career victories is tinkering with lineups and strategy to stop the Tar Heels' monthlong slide that has jeopardized their NCAA tournament chances and has them unranked for the first time in more than eight years.

``I've got to keep pushing buttons until I find the right thing,'' Hatchell said. ``We can play really well at times, but I don't have that defensive stopper out there. I don't have that leader to get them together and say, 'Look, get the ball here.' We've got to keep working until it happens.''

Ranked as high as fourth in November, the Tar Heels (17-9, 5-7 ACC) have lost six of seven since the start of February. It's an unusual stretch for a program that has won at least 28 games five straight seasons, a span in which they reached two Final Fours and two NCAA regional finals while also earning four straight ACC tournament titles and NCAA No. 1 seeds.

It will be difficult for the Tar Heels to extend their run with trips to No. 22 Georgia Tech on Friday and a home game against sixth-ranked Duke - which beat the Tar Heels by 28 in their first meeting - two days later to close the regular season.

Debbie Antonelli, a national radio and TV analyst, said it's a critical week for a program that has typically played its best heading into March.

``If I was at North Carolina, I wouldn't like people talking about whether I was on the bubble or off the bubble,'' Antonelli said. ``This time of year, there's never discussion of whether they're in or not. It's been, 'Where are they seeded?'''

Hatchell said she and her staff made a mistake by throwing too much at the young players even though it was the same formula as past years. The coaches have since tried to simplify schemes, backing off the pressure to play more zone defense while calling more set plays instead of running the motion offense that called for players to read the defense.

``Instead of anticipating what's there or what's going to happen, they wait and react to it,'' Hatchell said. ``In many situations, we're a day late and a dollar short where in the past we dictated what happened. And this group has not been able to do that.''

Some of these struggles should've been expected in hindsight.

The Tar Heels entered the year with a squad filled with freshmen and sophomores, while their top returning player - senior Jessica Breland - has been out as she recovers from an offseason diagnosis and treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Hatchell talked openly in preseason about a 2-year plan, saying she would ``let them play and make mistakes'' so that it would pay off later. Those mistakes have been even more numerous than she could have predicted, while the problems seem to go deeper than just Breland's absence.

``We know we have to win the next two games and they're big games,'' sophomore She'la White said. ``So I feel we will come out strong. But as far as confidence individually? I'm really not sure. I'm not sure about confidence as a team, either.''

In the Tar Heels' recent slide, the problems have included on-again, off-again intensity, shaky shooting and inconsistent rebounding. Meanwhile, an exasperated Hatchell has also cited a lack of leadership - someone to take charge as Ivory Latta, Camille Little or Erlana Larkins did in recent years - on a team playing five McDonald's All-Americans.

``Their consistent 40-minute effort is the thing I question,'' Antonelli said, ``which you never questioned about Carolina before.''

Their last game, a 74-63 weekend loss to North Carolina State, illustrated those struggles.

N.C. State shot 47 percent, including 9 for 20 from behind the arc, while taking a 44-42 rebounding advantage against the bigger Tar Heels. North Carolina led by eight midway through the second half before the Wolfpack ran off 15 straight points, then used a 12-2 clinching run after the Tar Heels had closed to within a bucket with 3 minutes left.

North Carolina knows time is running out to fix all those problems.

``These past few games, there should be no relaxing right now,'' said junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid, who led the Tar Heels to the ACC tournament title as a freshman. ``We just have to understand that every possession is important because it is. It's up to people to say, 'Let's not relax.' Sometimes you can keep telling people and telling people, but like Coach Hatchell said, it's in people's hearts to go out and play.''

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