North Carolina takes the court tonight against Virginia a dangerous team that's ranked No. 14 in the country and already knocked off perennial championship contender Tennessee this season. By any measure it's an important game for the No. 2 Tar Heels as they begin a difficult stretch of their conference schedule.
But it's not the reason UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell has to contend with a horde of media descending on Chapel Hill this weekend. That's because three days after UVa. leaves town her team will take on No. 1 Connecticut in a mid-season showdown that quite literally couldn't be any bigger.
Connecticut and North Carolina have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 for eight straight weeks. The teams are the top two in scoring offense" with Connecticut leading the nation at 88.2 points per game. They've both won against top-5 competition this season — and they're both undefeated.
""We got two press conferences set up" and we got two ESPN interviews — I mean it's just unbelievable" Hatchell said Thursday.
I'm just glad we're a part of it.""
The 1-vs.-2 match-up is nothing out of the ordinary in this series. All five UNC-Connecticut meetings since 2001 have included one team ranked in the top 10 and three times — most recently in 2008 — both were in that top-tier category.
""Of course" Connecticut that's year in and year out" Hatchell said. That's like a national championship game.""
The two teams have more in common than their hype. Both get up and down the court quickly and get plenty of fast break chances. They have similar depth — each has eight players who average 15 minutes or more" though UNC gets more of its scoring from the bench.
A key part of that bench play has been Chay Shegog who has impressed Hatchell with her progress so far this year. The freshman center who stands at 6 feet 5 inches averages only 17.5 minutes and 8.5 points per game and has not started a game because she has yet to pass one of Hatchell's conditioning requirements.
But that hasn't prevented her from playing a major role in some of UNC's toughest wins this season.
Shegog likely will match up against the Huskies' leading rebounder" 6-foot-4-inch center Tina Charles — one of the few players on whom Shegog doesn't have a large size advantage. But Hatchell said that won't be a problem for the aggressive freshman.
""When she's come up against opposition inside" she has accepted the challenge she said. And she's got basketball intelligence. You can show her and tell her something" and she goes and does it. Not all of them can do that.""
Meanwhile" UNC's defense will have to focus on All-America forward Maya Moore" who leads the Huskies in scoring.
""Maya Moore" there's no doubt she's the best player in the country" Hatchell said. It'd be worth the price of admission to come Monday night just to see her.""
If UNC beats Virginia and the Huskies defeat Syracuse" Monday's winner certainly will take the top spot in the rankings. But more importantly at least for Hatchell" the game will provide a chance for UNC to take stock of itself near the midway point of the season.
""We're gonna find out what we're made out of"" she said. It's going to be a great challenge for us.""
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