UNC (15-16, 3-13 ACC) is considered the nation’s youngest team. With eight first-years, three sophomores, one junior and a senior, inexperience proved problematic.
This was evident as 14th-seeded UNC took on sixth-seeded Syracuse (21-9, 11-5 ACC) in the second round of the ACC Tournament. The Orange’s Alexis Peterson, the 2016-17 ACC Women’s Player of the Year, torched North Carolina for 29 points.
The Tar Heels’ first-years simply couldn’t guard Peterson. They were always one step behind her as she easily spotted up behind the arc and knifed through the lane for basket after basket.
Nonetheless, Hatchell was proud of the effort her young players showed in the face of tremendous adversity.
The first-years gave all they had — it just wasn’t enough.
“I’m sure the roles they’ve had to play is very different from what they expected ...” Hatchell said. “They’ve been thrown into a fire.”
Hatchell knew coming into the season that some first-years would see major minutes, but she never planned to play them as much as she did. Season-ending injuries to senior forward Hillary Fuller and sophomore guards Destinee Walker and Stephanie Watts forced Hatchell’s hand.
Three of UNC’s five starters on Thursday were first-years.
“The season was different than I could have expected,” Smith said. “Coming in I didn’t think I was going to play 40 minutes in some games or start some other games.”
“Our team was able to come over some adversity this year, and learned from it.”
There were growing pains, but flashes of brilliance suggest that the future is bright. Despite missing the late fast-break opportunity, Smith still poured in 12 points on 50 percent shooting from behind the arc and held Peterson to only 9 second-half points.
“That’s kind of been the season for the freshmen, having to grow up quickly,” junior guard Jamie Cherry said. “I think they took on the challenge and did fairly well over the course of the season stepping in.”
The Tar Heels return all their players except one next season. They also add a star-studded 2017 recruiting class, suggesting intense competition for playing time.
But this year’s class of first-years will be ready. If there’s one thing they’ve learned, it’s how to face adversity.