“For the respect she gave me,” he said. “For trusting me with her team. Thank you, coach Hatchell.”
They didn’t think it was supposed to end this way. No, not after gaining a double-digit lead in the first half. Not after their leukemia-diagnosed coach promised them she’d do whatever it took to join them in Nashville if they made it to the Final Four.
But on Tuesday night, as the buzzer sounded and the raucous celebrations could be heard through the walls behind the beat of blaring music, the Tar Heels stared the end of their season straight in the eye.
It was over.
“We had the talent to get us to the Final Four, and I didn’t get us there,” Calder said. “For that I’m sorry.”
But it wasn’t his fault.
The Tar Heels got to a hot start — jumping to a 22-9 lead behind freshman guard Allisha Gray who led UNC with 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting.
Forwards Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel hushed All-American Chiney Ogwumike to a quiet four points in the first half and at the break UNC led 36-30. All was going as planned.
But as Ogwumike found her fire and opened herself up in the second half, the Cardinal did with her. The senior scored a game-high 20 points, 16 in the second half alone.
“The second half we couldn’t play as hard as we wanted to in the post,” sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel said. “I had two fouls in the first half. I believe Stephanie (Mavunga) ended up having two fouls in the first half, so we’re not gonna be able to battle as hard as we wanted to.”
But Ogwumike wasn’t the only one that scorched the Tar Heels.
Fellow senior Mikaela Ruef followed closely behind with 17, netting three 3-pointers behind a 6-foot-3 frame that is usually found in the post.
“Ruef was no question the X-factor because if she doesn’t make those threes, we’re still sitting there right on top of her,” Calder said.
“She was the difference in the game for them.”
UNC freshman Diamond DeShields was held to 13 points after injuring an ankle and an already hurt knee Sunday against South Carolina. But she refused to factor that into her performance.
“I played to the best of my abilities, I refuse to make excuses for myself,” she said.
As his athletes exited the press conference and Calder prepared himself for a slew of questions, he sat there wondering what would’ve been if Hatchell had been on the sidelines. If things would’ve turned out differently.
But he was the coach this season. And the loss wasn’t going to strip that from him.
“I’m proud of you ladies,” he told them.
The feeling was mutual as McDaniel cracked a smile.
“We love you, coach Calder.”