But the real story was much better.
In Coach Sylvia Hatchell’s return to the NCAA Tournament after missing last season with cancer, UNC doused the Flames’ hopes for an upset, pulling away for a 71-65 win.
“She’s like a mama bear around us,” said sophomore forward Stephanie Mavunga. “She’s back and it’s like, ‘Aw man, my mom’s here.’”
Liberty had more than blind faith that they could pull off an upset. They had a significant size advantage over UNC, with three players 6-foot-4 or taller. They had a 14-game winning streak. Despite playing on UNC’s home court in Carmichael Arena, they had a sizable number of seats filled with raucous fans in red.
And through nearly eight minutes of play, the Flames had the lead.
“I really felt it,” said redshirt senior guard Emily Frazier, who played in her last game with the Flames. “I think all of us felt it.”
But Mavunga, who had 12 points and nine rebounds despite bearing the brunt of Liberty’s defensive focus, and the rest of the Tar Heels felt something stronger — the challenge to give back to a mother who had given everything to them.
“If I get hit, and I’m getting hit inside, Coach Hatchell’s not having it,” Mavunga said. “It’s different when your mom’s coming out there like, ‘You got to watch it, they’re in there hitting my kid.’
“She really takes care of us on and off the court.”
The whole team responded to take care of Hatchell. Sophomore guard Allisha Gray had a team-high 17 points and gritted through three separate blows to the face by defenders.
“You want to make an impact her first year back,” Gray said. “You want to make it great.”
With UNC trailing in the first half, sophomore Jessica Washington collected an offensive rebound and drained a 3-pointer. The next time down the court, she flew in from the wing to grab a missed shot and put it back in the hoop. That five-point swing sparked a 12-0 UNC run that put the Tar Heels ahead for good.
At halftime, UNC held a 14-point lead. Although the Flames kept playing hard, they could never close the gap to fewer than six points. The Tar Heels wouldn’t let them. Last year, UNC took interim coach Andrew Calder to the Elite Eight. And in the words of Mavunga, while they loved playing for him, it’s different now that their mother is back.
“You don’t want to end your tournament run earlier now that Coach Hatchell’s back,” Mavunga said. “We want to cherish those moments and have her around for as long as we can.”
The story’s not finished yet.