Twenty of them — red frames and white cushions — housed members of the North Carolina women’s basketball team. The 21st remained empty, amplifying the absence of Coach Sylvia Hatchell, who served the first of two one-game suspensions as the Tar Heels took on N.C. State.
The last time Hatchell missed a game was when she sat out the 2013-14 season while battling leukemia. Then, UNC’s players rallied around their coach and rocketed into the Elite Eight.
But without their leader on Sunday, the Tar Heels could not find momentum, falling hard to the Wolfpack 78-49.
“We have champions in our locker room, and they want to play for Coach Hatchell. They love Coach Hatchell,” said associate head coach Andrew Calder. “It’s a situation we’ve been dealt with, and we’re just looking to fight through it.”
UNC announced Saturday that Hatchell would serve two one-game suspensions. The first stemmed from its game against Duke on Jan. 24, when Hatchell made contact with an official.
The second, which Hatchell will serve when the Tar Heels (12-11, 2-6 ACC) play Boston College on Feb. 7, comes from the NCAA, which said the coach committed a Level III violation “pertaining to activities that simulate game day introductions of prospects during an official visit.”
With Hatchell out, Calder — who filled in for Hatchell during the 2013-14 season — took on the task of getting the Tar Heels their first win since Jan. 7. And as the first half played out, it looked like North Carolina would give the Wolfpack (16-6, 7-2 ACC) a game. The first 20 minutes featured two ties and eight lead changes, and at the intermission, the Tar Heels trailed by just five.
That deficit ballooned to double digits less than five minutes into the second half. And without their leader, UNC played the rest of the quarter lacking a spark. The Wolfpack took advantage.
“I think it’s definitely difficult for us to feed off of each other,” said redshirt senior Erika Johnson. “All of us are emotional in our own way, but Coach Hatchell definitely gets us back on track.”
N.C. State outscored UNC 28-11 in the third quarter, putting the game out of reach before the final period even began. Despite Calder’s best efforts, he could not replicate the inspiration of his longtime compatriot.
“We love Coach Calder,” said sophomore guard Jamie Cherry, “but he’s no Coach Hatchell.”
No one in the first 20 chairs was. It was the 21st — the empty one — that made the greatest impact.