North Carolina’s talented youngsters thrived all season despite never playing a game with their Hall of Fame head coach on the sideline.
With another year of maturity and the return of Sylvia Hatchell, the Tar Heels are poised to do more next year.
The Tar Heels (27-10) reached an NCAA regional final for the first time in six years before falling to Stanford, 74-65, ending an emotional season that began with Hatchell’s leukemia diagnosis that kept her off the bench all season.
“We had the talent to get to the Final Four, and I didn’t get us there,” associate head coach Andrew Calder said after Tuesday night’s loss. “For that, I’m sorry. ... But next year we have a lot of players coming back, and we have a Hall of Fame coach that’s going to work with them every day.”
Hatchell reviewed practice footage, drew up game plans and consulted with her staff and players this season. With her illness in remission, Hatchell said last week there was a chance she could return for the Final Four if the Tar Heels advanced that far.
All along, though, she’s said she’ll be ready for next year. And she’ll find a stocked roster awaiting her.
The Tar Heels have no seniors and built around this year’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class with Diamond DeShields, Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington. That group will now have a year of tournament experience, including playing a veteran Cardinal team on its home court to get to the Final Four.
“You can’t help but be proud, especially with such a young group,” DeShields said. “We never really were affected by the crowd, I don’t think.”
DeShields led the way, averaging about 18 points while being named Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year. Gray developed into a strong No. 2 option with her ability to shoot from outside and drive to the rim, while Mavunga and rising junior Xylina McDaniel also averaged in double figures.
The Tar Heels also return key reserves Danielle Butts and Brittany Rountree, while Washington and Latifah Coleman split time at the point.
The Tar Heels will also get back outside shooter Megan Buckland from a knee injury that sidelined her nearly all year and add instate point guard Jamie Cherry, who finished as the state’s No. 2 career scorer and on Wednesday became a four-time Associated Press all-state pick.
It’s a group that will have plenty of confidence after seeing how much it accomplished in its first year together.
“We wanted so much to have brought this win home for (Hatchell) and go to the Final Four,” Mavunga said, “but we’re proud of how far we came anyway.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Stanford, Calif., contributed to this report.
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