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 (24-9) against No. 13 UT Martin (24-7).
Hatchell, 62, was diagnosed with leukemia in October and hasn’t coached this season.
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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 as a spectator. It will be North Carolina’s 25th appearance in the NCAAs and the Heels have gone 40-19 in the tournament under Hatchell.
UT Martin, the regular season and tournament champion of the Ohio Valley Conference, is still looking for its first NCAA tournament win. The Skyhawks qualified in each of the three previous seasons but have lost by 45, 23 and 33 points.
UT Martin comes in as the third-highest scoring team in women’s basketball, averaging 84.6 points. The Skyhawks 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."
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 rebounds 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.