To see the emotion on her face, to feel the hurt in the undertones of her voice when she speaks, to know that after months of leukemia treatments and weeks in the hospital, Sylvia Hatchell is so close — yet still so far away.
With each day that passes, with each game that is played with Hatchell still sidelined, the only thing the North Carolina women’s basketball team has known to do is play in her honor. To hope — and to keep winning.
And as it heads to Stanford, Calif., to take on No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA Tournament, that urgency is in its fullest form.
That’s because earlier this week, Hatchell made her team a promise.
“I told the girls the other day, ‘Alright there’s no reason you can’t get to Nashville (for the Final Four),’” she said.
“And I told them — when we get there, ‘I’ll sing and dance with you on the table.’’’
ACC Rookie of the Year and espnW National Freshman of the Year Diamond DeShields can’t wait for that moment.
“Each day is one step closer to her coming back,” she said.
“She sees the light at the end of the tunnel. And we see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think it’ll definitely increase our motivation and purpose out there on the floor.”
But to make it to the Final Four and potentially the National Championship game, the Tar Heels must first escape South Carolina on Sunday, the Stanford regional’s top seed and the home of the SEC’s coach of the year, freshman of the year and player of the year .
The two squads squared off in a Myrtle Beach battle in December, UNC leaving the beach the eight-point victors .
But the Gamecocks have only lost three games since, and the Tar Heels know they’ll bring everything they have to California. That’s why film sessions and attention to detail have been crucial this week.
“We got a great read on them,” DeShields said.
“I actually remembered most of their plays from when we went over the scouting report. I’m sure they’ve added a few things in, but I understand their play tendencies and maneuvers on the court.”
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels have won four of their last five, squeaking by Tennessee Martin 60-58 Sunday before handling Michigan State 62-53 Tuesday .
McDaniel said that despite trailing by 18 midway through the second half of the UT Martin game , she knew her team would find a way.
It’s what UNC has done all season.
“I honestly didn’t think that we would lose,” she said.
“Just looking at (associate head) coach (Andrew) Calder during the game, he was just so calm.”
And if all goes as planned, she’ll be looking at Hatchell, right next to him in Nashville next weekend.
“Her numbers have been low, so she hasnt been able to be around us a lot, but that added so much motivation,” McDaniel said.
“It’s been fun — a long, but a great journey.”
And on Sunday, the journey continues.