Hatchell at forefront of young Tar Heels’ minds

Since being diagnosed with leukemia two weeks before the start of the season, not everything for Sylvia Hatchell has changed.

The Hall of Fame North Carolina women’s basketball coach announced she would be taking a temporary leave from her sideline duties.

But if there’s one thing cancer can’t take away from her — that she won’t let take from her — it’s her relationship with basketball embodied by the team she’s loved since arriving in Chapel Hill 28 years ago.

Though associate head coach Andrew Calder is filling Hatchell’s role in her absence, he knows that the team still belongs to Hatchell.

“What we lose is the fact that she’s in the Hall of Fame with over 900 (wins) — her experience and knowledge of the game — but she’s always made a commitment to prepare her assistant coaches to be head coaches one day,” Calder said. “I’ve been with her 27 years and I’m going to coach the game through her eyes.”

“We’re still going to play Carolina basketball. We’re going to play hard, play smart, play together — defend, rebound, execute and compete with aggressive attacking mentality. That’s Coach Sylvia Hatchell basketball.”

To live up to Hatchell’s vision, a young group of Tar Heels will all have to be on the same page.

After the graduation of point guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, forward Krista Gross and center Waltiea Rolle, UNC’s 2013-14 roster doesn’t list any seniors and only returns two starters from last year’s team that finished second in the ACC and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But with the departure of last year’s talent comes new, nationally reconized faces.

UNC welcomes the No. 1 freshman class in the country featuring a well-rounded group of four top-25 recruits.

Of the four freshmen, guard Diamond DeShields comes in with the highest expectations. She was named to the Coaches’ Preseason All-ACC Team, joining sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel on the list.

“They’re talented very coachable,” Calder said. “They’ve meshed very well with the returners. Diamond DeShields is a special player. Allisha Gray can finish driving but she’s also a very good shooter. Jessica Washington does a very good job running the team, an outstanding passer. Stephanie Mavunga, a player that demands a double team inside.”

McDaniel, one of UNC’s two returning starters and the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year, said the task of leading the team will require a collective effort, regardless of age.

“I feel like there’s no age limit to being the leader,” she said. “Everybody on the team leads at some point. Our seniors last year, they really showed how to lead … so we pretty much watched what they did, learned from it and are now doing it.”

Despite a young team, and entering the season without its Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines, UNC was selected to finish fourth in both ACC preseason polls.

And, as most teams are already plotting to play in March, redshirt sophomore guard Megan Buckland said the Tar Heels are now playing for something else.

“The obvious and very true answer is coach Hatchell,” she said. “Right now, she is definitely the motivation behind every single one of the players and coaches in our program.

“She is a fighter and is going to do whatever it takes to get back to be with us. She is definitely still our leader and motivation factor going into the season.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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