Tar Heels look to continue emotional basketball run

The news last fall that North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell had leukemia ripped through her team like a lightning bolt.

The diagnosis came the same year Hatchell became the third head coach in women’s basketball to win 900 games – a few weeks after she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and only days before the first game of the 2013-14 season.

And her long-time associate coach, Andrew Calder, found himself in a position he surely never wanted to be: On a coaching bench without Hatchell at his side.

Now, five months later, this Cinderella team, with four key freshmen led by the multidimensional Diamond DeShields, is in the midst of an emotionally charged run at a national title. The fourth-seeded Tar Heels, who advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight by knocking off top-seeded South Carolina on Sunday, play Stanford tonight for a spot in the Final Four.

And for, perhaps, the chance to for Hatchell to watch in person.

“Winning is one step closer, every day is one step closer to her coming back,” star Tar Heel Diamond DeShields recently told The Associated Press prior to Sunday’s win. “So that’s been the mindset all season. Like she says, she sees the light at the end of the tunnel. And we see the light at the end of the tunnel. So I definitely think it’ll increase our motivation and purpose out there on the floor.”

If the Tar Heels prevail tonight, Hatchell, who has said her leukemia is in remission, told reporters recently that traveling to the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., is “very doable.”

And that would be special for players – and two coaches, in particular.

Calder and Hatchell forged their friendship years before they were on the same side on the sideline, while bumping into each other at basketball tournaments across the South.

On one occasion, they sat in the bleachers together and discovered they had even more in common than they knew: Both dreamed of one day coaching in Chapel Hill.

In 1986, when Hatchell was named head coach of the Tar Heels, he was the first person she called. For the last 28 years, Calder has been involved in every fact of the Tar Heel program and oversees scouting and player development.

Throughout the year, Hatchell has met individually with players, given pre- and post-game talks and taken copious notes on games while watching from home.

When asked by an ESPN reporter after Sunday’s game about how the team had executed his game plan to stay in the lead from start to finish, Calder thanked Hatchell for helping him with his game plan.

DeShields also told ESPN she had received inspiration from Hatchell in the form of a Sunday morning text message.

“She said she had faith in me and that she loves me and is proud of me,” DeShields told the network of Hatchell’s text. “Things like that really encourage you as a player to come out and remember what you are playing for. We are out here playing for Coach Hatchell, so it just motivated me even more.”

Calder has provided plenty of motivation, as well.

Calder took over coaching duties for the 2013-14 season as Hatchell battled leukemia.

Calder took over head coaching duties for the 2013-14 season as Hatchell battled leukemia. Credit UNC Athletic Communications

When Calder – a South Carolina native and son of a high school basketball coach — first arrived at Carolina, he said it was his dream job and was thankful Hatchell had given him the opportunity. It has been a successful partnership.

Together, Calder and Hatchell have led their teams to eight ACC titles.

Together, they won the 1994 national championship.

Now you have to wonder: can lightning strike again?

Should the Tar Heels win tonight, Hatchell told The Associated Press she would not return to her head coaching duties this season, because she wouldn’t want to upset the balance of a team filled with so many freshman. (She will be able to return to her head coaching duties next season, she has said.)

But it would be special for all, seeing her back near Calder’s side for a big game. Like seemingly always.

Read more about the Tar Heels’ Elite challenge on goheels.com.

By Gary Moss, University Gazette

Published April 1, 2014