GREENSBORO, N.C. --- Head coach Sylvia Hatchell will use any slights, real or perceived, to help motivate her team. And this year was no exception. She never forgets, and even after a 92-73 loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament title game, she still remembered the slight on Media Day last November.
"When the season started, we were picked by you - by the media - fifth in the conference and we weren't even ranked in the country," Hatchell said. "I remember here in Greensboro on Media Day, I said, 'Well, there's two things. First of all, we're underrated and second of all, we're going to be very hard to play against.'
I think both of those two things have happened. The fact that we were runner-up, it's nothing to be ashamed of."
She's right about that. But it's hard to blame the media for wondering how good this team could be. Next year, everyone said, would be the year. UNC lost most of its scoring talent from last season, and there were a lot of question marks surrounding the remaining players. A lot.
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had been plagued by injuries her whole career; could she step up? She's answered that question fairly resoundingly, taking on the point guard duties in her senior season and giving all she can to this team.
Could Waltiea Rolle take the next step? She has, and she's growing as a player even still.
Would Xylina McDaniel step in and make an immediate impact? The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year would say yes.
And it was clear the media perception was that this UNC team would be decent, anyway. Fifth in the league is not terrible. But had this UNC team finished fifth in the ACC regular-season, it likely would be sweating out Selection Monday.
This UNC team has very little to no margin for error, and it showed during a stretch in the first half when Duke was able to pull away. UNC missed 14 out of 16 shots, and the Blue Devils seemingly couldn't miss. Ruffin-Pratt was out with foul trouble, and while backup Latifah Coleman played well yet again in her absence, it wasn't enough.
It might be too frustrating for some teams to deal with, maybe some mentally weaker teams that don't want to keep fighting when there seems like there isn't any point. When you look up at the scoreboard and see a 20-point deficit, it'd be easy to stop trying, or at least let up a little bit. It's just human nature.
And so that stretch alone, filled with bad shots, turnovers and a bit of panic, was essentially the game.
"We took some bad shots and then we missed those, and they got on a roll and made a couple good baskets. It wasn't all at one time, but they just chipped it away and things were falling their way," Hatchell said. "We turned it over, and even though we only had 14 turnovers and they had 18, we had a couple costly turnovers that led to quick and easy baskets for them."
Still, the one constant with this team all year has been that it doesn't quit. Hatchell's teams never go down without a fight, particularly this one. And it didn't. UNC pressed Duke throughout the second half, despite it leading to a number of easy run-outs for Duke lay-ups.
"In the second half, we went after them and pressed them. But when a team is as skilled offensively as they are, when you press them, it makes their skills look even better," Hatchell said. "But we're not going to sit back and not go after them. We did, and they were able to take the ball to the basket some and score. But hey, we went after them."
And it will be a valuable asset come NCAA Tournament time, as well. Sure, there might be a stretch where the Tar Heels go cold for an extended period and can't get over the hump, and maybe their season ends that way. But they're not going to go down without a fight, and that's what has made this season so rewarding for Hatchell. They've bought into Hatchell, and they trust in her - and each other - unconditionally.