North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, fighting leukemia, had hoped to be with her team at Myrtle Beach, a trip her club has made annually since the 1994-95 season. While Hatchell tells her coaches and players she's improving each day, she couldn't make North Carolina's two games at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
The 14th ranked Tar Heels, at least, gave Hatchell plenty to smile about with a 74-66 victory over No. 10 South Carolina on Wednesday night.
"They're playing for her, there's no doubt about that," said longtime assistant Andrew Calder, who's leading North Carolina in Hatchell's absence.
North Carolina, which defeated New Orleans 124-41 here Monday night, improved to 26-5 all-time in games playing along South Carolina's famed beach resort.
The Tar Heels (10-2) showed a little of everything that's made them one of the country's winningest programs during Hatchell's 28 seasons in charge.
Talented freshman Stephanie Mavunga had her seventh double-double this season with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Mavunga helped North Carolina build a 13-point lead midway through the second half while Diamond DeShields and Xylina McDaniel helped fend off the Gamecocks, who cut the margin to 55-53 with nine minutes to go.
DeShields, the daughter of ex-major leaguer Delino DeShields, scored 17 points while McDaniel, the daughter of former NBA standout Xavier McDaniel, added 14 points and seven rebounds.
Mavunga said teammate Danielle Butts told the Tar Heels at the half that despite their 39-27 edge that the Gamecocks (9-1) would tighten things up.
"She told us we've got to hold our heads up and keep pushing through everything," Mavunga said.
North Carolina did that to perfection after South Carolina's charge, which cut the game to 2 points on Aleighsa Welch's foul shots with 9:21 to go.
That's when McDaniel drove for a layup and Mavunga followed with a basket to extend the Tar Heels lead to 59-53. Mavunga and McDaniel combined for 12 straight points down the stretch to fend off South Carolina.
"They're undefeated, they're not used to losing so they're going to keep coming at us," Mavunga said. "So we just had to stay together and keep doing what it is we do, play Carolina basketball."
South Carolina had hoped to match its best start at 10-0 in coach Dawn Staley's six seasons with a victory. Instead, Staley says she's got plenty of things to teach her young team -- the Gamecocks start three freshmen -- as they finish off non-conference play the next two weeks.
"Of course, they're disappointed that they lost this game, but we've got a lot of fight left in us," Staley said. "This was one you want to get, but it's not the tell-all of the season."
It was the Tar Heels fifth straight victory since falling to Arizona State in overtime, 94-81, on Nov. 29.
Welch led the Gamecocks with a career-high 23 points.
Tiffany Mitchell had 18 points and Elem Ibiam had 14 for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina had largely cruised to its undefeated run coming in with a strong offensive showing. The Gamecocks had averaged just under 80 points a game -- their closest score so far was a 70-50 victory over Southern Cal last month.
But Staley said her team hadn't really been tested defensively and her fears were borne out in the opening half as the Tar Heels frequently beat South Carolina down court for easy buckets or found open players on the wing for uncontested jumpers.
Mavunga and Gray were a combined 7 of 12 in the first 20 minutes as North Carolina opened up a double-digit advantage.
Mavunga's inside basket with 11:30 left put the Tar Heels up for good, 13-12.
South Carolina cut it to 23-21 on Ibiam's basket four minutes later before the Tar Heels finished the half on a 16-6 surge.
DeShields had five points and Gray four in the run.
South Carolina's coaches and staff joined their North Carolina counterparts in wearing orange ribbons to support Hatchell's fight against the disease.
"She's a strong woman and a legendary coach that's been stricken by this," Staley said. "But if I'm cancer, I wouldn't want to mess with coach Hatchell."