Preview: #1 UConn at #2 North Carolina
Posted January 18, 2009
Updated January 19, 2009
A quick look at the roster of North Carolina women’s basketball team reveals that coach Sylvia Hatchell’s squad doesn’t have the star power of its recent past.
There are no glaringly obvious names like Ivory Latta, Camille Little, Latoya Pringle or Erlana Larkins to immediately gush over when discussing the team’s top talent, and no singular dynamic player to will UNC to victory.
But so far, more than halfway through the regular season, UNC hasn’t missed its heroes of Final Fours past one bit. What has emerged in their place is a balanced offensive attack in which no one really knows who’s going to be the go-to scorer for the Tar Heels on any given night.
Take last Thursday’s game against No. 14 Virginia. The Tar Heels managed to blow out a highly-ranked opponent even though their top scorer, Jessica Breland, had an off-night. Breland finished fifth in the scoring column with only 11, but her teammates were more than ready to step up in their own contributions when she struggled. UNC’s drubbed the Cavaliers 103-74.
And that’s the way it’s been all season.
“It’s a different player every night,” Breland said.
“Sometimes its Alex (Miller) coming off the bench taking a charge. Sometimes it could be Laura (Broomfield) coming off getting blocks, or it could be Christinia (Dewitt) getting a good rebound with a good outlet, or Italee (Lucas) taking a long three, She’la (White) coming in and hitting a couple threes at the time. We’re just all sparks.”
North Carolina sports an unblemished 17-0 and has seen itself steadily rise in the polls all the way to No.2. On their journey toward the top of the rankings, the Tar Heels captured the preseason NIT title on road against Courtney Paris and No. 3 Oklahoma, and also defended the ACC’s reputation in the ACC/Big Ten challenge in Columbus against No. 15 Ohio State.
Not bad for a team that was expected to take a hit when it lost two of its best players, Larkins and Pringle, to the first round of the WNBA draft last year.
“Well everybody thought after we lost Ivory and Camille we’d go down too, but I think a lot of it is our system and our tradition,” Hatchell said. “We expect certain things. Kids nowadays you have to set the standards and a lot of times they will live up to expectations.”
One of the pleasant surprises of the season has been the play of newcomer Chay Shegog, a 6-5 freshman from Stafford, Va., who plays both forward and center. Shegog has provided an intimidating presence in the post for the Tar Heels, averaging more than a block per game to go along with a 9.0 scoring average.
“She sees the whole picture, she picks things up,” Hatchell said. “She’s not afraid in there, she loves the physical play. She’s takes every opportunity as a chance to get better and she does – she’s played her best against the better competition.”
And she’s done it all off the bench. Hatchell said if Shegog will start when she finally meets one last conditioning requirement.
UNC’s elder statesman is Rashanda McCants, a senior who has seen her scoring drop slightly in her final season in Chapel Hill. But that drop can be attributed to the team’s focus on spreading the ball around more rather than a decline in ability. McCants proved she can still carry load for her team when it’s necessarily in an early season win against Xavier in which she scored 11 straight points to rally the Tar Heels past the Musketeers.
Though UNC has certainly proven worthy of its lofty ranking, Monday’s showdown against No.1 UConn will help the Tar Heels discover just how much work they have left to do.
UNC boasts one of the most potent scoring attacks in college basketball (they come in at second in the country in scoring), but questions still remain as to whether this team can run with Connecticut, owners of the country’s top-ranked offense. The Huskies have won by double-digits in every single game they’ve played this season, and coaches and analysts around the country already are debating whether this might be the “best team ever” in women’s college basketball.
“This is one of the teams we’re going to struggle with,” Breland said.
The Tar Heels are 77-2 at home since the beginning of the 2004-05 season, so having home-court advantage in the contest should give them an added boost. Containing explosive sophomore Maya Moore and her teammates will be a tall order, but, at least before the game, UNC seems ready for the challenge.
"Someone's going to lose, and it's going to be the point of view of who's going to work harder and put in the extra work," said McCants. "I definitely think we've been working toward this for a long time and motivating ourselves and competing in practice to where we're not going to be that team that doesn't give it its all."