STANFORD, Calif. – Diamond DeShields escaped two close calls with injury to score 19 points, leading North Carolina one win closer to a sweet reunion with healing coach Sylvia Hatchell by beating top-seeded South Carolina, 65-58, in the Stanford Regional semifinals on Sunday night.
Brittany Rountree converted a pair of free throws with 1:14 to go and two more at the 36.4-second mark to help seal it for the No. 4 seed Tar Heels (27-9), who backed up their December victory against the Gamecocks with another on the NCAA Tournament stage.
The Tar Heels will play in Tuesday night’s regional final against second-seeded Stanford (32-3), an 82-57 winner on its home court against No. 3 seed Penn State in Sunday’s first game.
Alaina Coates hit several key baskets down the stretch on the way to 22 points for South Carolina (29-5), held to 37.7-percent shooting while committing 13 turnovers.
North Carolina players lingered well after the final buzzer hand handshakes, with DeShields holding Stephanie Mavunga in a long embrace. Mavunga, who contributed 13 points, nine rebounds and three steals, then lifted Jessica Washington into the air as the guard raised her arm in triumph.
North Carolina needs one more win to be reunited with Hatchell, whose doctors have said she could travel to the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., after recently undergoing her final chemotherapy session for leukemia.
Hatchell hasn’t coached this season after being diagnosed with leukemia in October, though she does plenty of game planning with associate coach Andrew Calder by phone.
The arena fell silent when DeShields first went down with an apparent right ankle injury just 2:23 into the game. It didn’t hinder the Tar Heels much. She returned five minutes later and hit a jumper to push North Carolina’s lead to 11-6.
She went down again at the 7:51 mark, grabbing her left leg before hustling to the bench with a limp and grimacing in pain. Following the media timeout, she came back out, calmly hit a free throw to complete the three-point play.
On a late possession in the first half, she knocked down a baseline jumper with the shot clock winding down to put her team ahead 29-15. But there would be one more scary moment. With 1:09 to play in the half, DeShields slammed into the basket support and bounced right back.
Tiffany Davis knocked down a 3-pointer 22 seconds before halftime to bring South Carolina within 29-21 at intermission.
The Tar Heels shot 42.9 percent from the field in the first half – with DeShields going 5 of 10.
Tiffany Mitchell hit back-to-back 3-pointers to keep South Carolina close midway through the second half, then Coates scored four straight points to pull the Gamecocks within 43-42 at the 8:43 mark.
North Carolina answered almost every threat.
The Tar Heels already had plenty of confidence they could win again for Carolina bragging rights against South Carolina, an NCAA No. 1 seed for the first time in program history.
Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks hoped to avenge an eight-point loss from Dec. 18 played on a neutral court in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They even stayed out West after winning their first two NCAA games in Seattle, while the Tar Heels had to travel cross country.
Not that they seemed the least bit road weary.
The Tar Heels have said it all along, and did so once more in Saturday’s lead-up, that they are motivated daily by Hatchell’s ordeal. In every practice and every game, she weighs on their minds and in their hearts.