By Amy Hoots
It may be April Fool's Day, a day of practical jokes and trickery, but the women's basketball team is out to prove that they are not fooling around. The same team whose season nearly ended nine days ago as they narrowly defeated No. 12 seed UT-Martin in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament knocked off top-seeded South Carolina on Sunday and secured a spot in the Elite Eight.
The battle of the Carolinas shifted from the east coast to the west coast for the second meeting of the year between North and South Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Gamecocks in an early season meeting and they showed that they could do it again. Allisha Gray drained a three in the opening minutes of the game and the Tar Heels never lost the lead.
Of course, that is oversimplifying an exciting game of ups and downs. Freshman Diamond DeShields went down less than three minutes into the game with an ankle sprain and you could almost hear the collective gasp from Sylvia Hatchell and the rest of the Tar Heel Nation watching in North Carolina as the National Freshman of the Year held her right ankle and grimaced in pain.
Unfortunately, it was DeShields who went down with an injury. And fortunately, it was DeShields who went down with an injury. You see, Sunday's game is simply not the kind of game DeShields is going to miss. Watch her play, or even just catch a glimpse of her facial expression during a game, and that much is clear.
DeShields checked back in the game after getting taped up and showed why she deserved Freshman of the Year honors. But at the 7:51 mark, DeShields was on the ground again. She was fouled on a made reverse layup, but this time, it was her left knee that she was clutching. DeShields was quick to get up and while her limp to the bench exposed her pain, only determination was visible on her face.
The Tar Heels led by eight at half and DeShields responded to a reporter's question about her physical condition by saying, "I look forward to a more physical second half." Basically, the freshman said, "Bring it."
South Carolina did "bring it" during the second half and the Gamecocks threatened to take the lead several times. Each time, however, a different Tar Heel stepped up. In the second half, Jessica Washington scored her first points of the NCAA tournament and took a key charge on the defensive end on a play that would have allowed South Carolina to capture the lead. Danielle Butts shot 3-4 from the field and hit a few well-timed jumpers in the second half. Stephanie Mavunga contributed 13 points and stepped up on both ends of the court. Latifah Coleman provided a solid performance the Tar Heels needed and Brittany Rountree converted five of six free throws in the waning minutes of the game, eliciting questions about the Gamecocks fouling strategy down the stretch.
And of course, DeShields showed that she could be battered and bruised, but not easily beaten. How did her legs feel after her team upset the "other" Carolina 65-58?
"My legs feel great. They feel great, I can't complain. We're going to the Elite 8, so my legs feel great. I'm still dancing so I feel good," she said with a grin plastered across her face.
The dance continues tonight as Carolina faces second-seeded Stanford (32-3) on the Cardinal's own court. Stanford defeated No. 3 seed Penn State handily 82-57 in Sunday's first game. Stanford is unbeaten on their court this year and they have not lost an NCAA tournament game at home since 2007.
The person who's likely to be the least intimidated by that statistic is DeShields, who has been vocal in her love of playing in front of a hostile crowd. Her performances at Duke and NC State this season have raise doubts whether a home court can really be defined as an advantage for her opponents.
Carolina will have to bring their best game to Maples Pavilion if they hope to stop the Cardinals, led by senior Chiney Ogwumike who averages 26.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. She is an efficient, impact player who shoots 61 percent from the field and is expected to become the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft in just a few weeks.
The odds will be stacked against the youthful Tar Heels tonight in California, but they have a secret weapon waiting over 2,000 miles away in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her name is Sylvia Hatchell, and if the Tar Heels upset Stanford tonight and reach the Final Four, Hatchell plans to join her team in Nashville to compete for a national championship. Hatchell recently completed her final chemotherapy treatment and received positive news from the doctors about her potential future travel plans.
Of course, the Tar Heels face a big hurdle before Hatchell can punch her ticket to Nashville, but hurdles are nothing new for Hatchell and this Tar Heel team. The prospect of their head coaching joining them on the biggest stage in women's college basketball Carolina has motivated the Tar Heels to beat the odds and reach the Final Four. After Sunday's win Mavunga said, "Why not us, why not us? Why not Carolina?"