RAMblings 1.20.09 - Huskies Crash Heels’ Party

by Lee Pace


            First it was Boston College strutting into the Smith Center in early January and popping the Carolina men’s basketball team in the face and whacking the Tar Heels off their perch as the nation’s top-ranked team.

            The cruelest month continued Monday night when UConn swaggered into Chapel Hill and throttled the Tar Heel’s women’s team by 30 points. A record crowd for a Tar Heel women’s basketball game—responding to a massive marketing initiative by the UNC Athletic Department—convened in the Smith Center, and 12,722 saw a pair of 17-0 teams and the Nos. 1 and 2 ranked teams in the nation square off in a battle of heavyweights.

            Turns out the Tar Heels were mere pip-squeaks. The Huskies rebounded with more intensity, defended with more menace and shot like snipers as they bolted to a 15-4 lead and w ere never challenged in an 88-58 romp. The North keeps crashing these Southern parties as two Carolina hoops teams have been sent back to the blackboard for mid-season overhauls—first Roy Williams’ club and now Sylvia Hatchell’s.  

            “They came into our house and showed us how to play basketball,” said Hatchell, who recently joined Pat Summitt, Judy Conradt and Vivian Stringer as the only women’s coaches with 800 career wins.

            Hatchell then noted all the teaching points that would emanate from the post-game tape-study process and the fact that there’s plenty of basketball left to play.

            “It’s not the end of the world,” Hatchell said. “The sun will come up tomorrow—though we may have a little snow. That’s the only reason we’re not going to be here at 6 o’clock, by the way.”

            The snowfall that laced the Triangle with two to four inches overnight Monday and forced cancellation of dozens of flights out of RDU International Tuesday morning was the only element that could derail the Huskies.

            They were quick. Point guard Lorin Dixon, a 5-4 mighty mite, substituted for injured starter Caroline Doty and outraced the speedy Tar Heels from end line to end line. One snippet for the highlight tape was her racing coast-to-coast with under a minute left in the first half, zigzagging on her dribble and cutting like a razor through the Heels’ defense for a layup and an 18-point Huskie lead.

             “This game matched Lorin’s style of play—speed vs. speed,” forward Renee Montgomery said. “She’s one of the fastest players in the country. I had a feeling she would have a great game.”

            They were smooth. Sophomore forward Maya Moore has the stroke of Wayne Ellington and the work ethic of Tyler Hansbrough. She notched 19 points from outside and inside and gave the locals insight into why Huskie coach Gene Auriemma and Tennessee coach Pat Summit fought so hard for her services in a recruiting war two years ago. Summitt accused UConn of recruiting violations when Auriemma arranged a tour of ESPN’s Bridgeport headquarters on Moore’s official visit, and now the blood is so bad between the coaches that they no longer play in the regular season.

            And they were intense. UConn out-rebounded Carolina 27-11 through the final moments of the first half—half of them on the offensive boards—and notched nine steals while disrupting the Tar Heels’ motion offense.

“The most important thing I saw was when we had to do something, we did it,” Auriemma said. “When we needed a rebound, we got one. When we needed a bucket, we got one. We were never passive with them. We continued to attack them on offense and defense. We never went into a four- or five-minute lull.”

It added up to Carolina’s first non-conference home loss in eight years and was a disappointing climax to weeks of promotion to fill the Smith Center to the brim for a women’s game. Rick Steinbacher, Carolina’s associate athletic director for marketing, said his office did more advertising and promotions for this game than any Tar Heel athletic event in his three years on the job.

“What a great opportunity to draw attention to our program,” Steinbacher said. “No. 1 in the country versus No. 2 ... UConn and Carolina ... two of the top programs in the country. When people are introduced to women’s basketball, they love it.

“Coach Hatchell’s style lends self to letting athletic players display their athleticism. She plays a wide-open style, push the ball every second. She’s more concerned about possessions and running than she is in turnovers. They push the ball hard and rebound and score a lot.”

Former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors called the Tar Heels’ style a “feeding frenzy” and would prepare for Carolina games by having seven males on one side practice against her starting five. Wake Forest coach Mike Peterson compared it to the “40 Minutes of Hell” mindset of Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson in the 1990s.

“I don’t like it when people stereotype women’s basketball, and I don’t like 40-point games,” Hatchell says. “I want it to be fun for the players and exciting for the fans. I want people to say, ‘I love watching your team play.’”

The lower level of the Smith Center was full and the four-row rim of the upper deck was mostly occupied as well. The attendees included men’s coach Roy Williams and his wife, Wanda, who watched from baseline seats; several men’s players, among them Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green; UNC Chancellor Holden Thorpe, whose fingers deftly navigated a keyboard at mid-court during the singing of the national anthem; and a smattering from the Tar Heel football program, including Deunta Williams, Johnny White and Greg Little.          

The Tar Heels bolted from the gate true to their personality—they launched their first shot three seconds into the game—and took no more than 13 seconds off the 30-second clock to get a shot on their first six possessions. Unfortunately, only two of those shots fell. UConn went on an 8-0 run and darted to a 15-4 lead, and it was all downhill from there.

At the end, Hatchell was left to put the 30-point annihilation in perspective.

            “Right now that gap is there,” she said. “I don’t how much better they can get. We’re going to get better. A lot of other teams are going to get better, too. That gap is going to narrow as we get into March. But they are pretty dog-gone good. They showed why they are No. 1.”