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North Carolina lost top player last May

Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell has a young team.  (Associated Press)
Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell has a young team. (Associated Press)

Sylvia Hatchell is matter-of-fact about her basketball team.

To casual fans, North Carolina’s 19-11 record and 10th seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament is unseemly.

But Hatchell, who has taken the Tar Heels to nine straight tournaments and 22 in her 24 years, has things in perspective, even before the 3-8 finish.

“We’re young,” Hatchell said. “Eight of our players are freshmen and sophomores and we weren’t expecting to lose an All-American for the year with cancer.”

Hatchell and the Tar Heels were rocked in May when it was discovered senior Jessica Breland had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The 6-foot-3 forward, who averaged 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds last year, finished chemotherapy in October and has a good prognosis, but redshirting was the only option for this year.

“A player the caliber of Breland makes a difference,” Hatchell said. “I’m not making any excuses, I’m telling you how it is. This is a different year for us.”

So yes, the Heels have struggled, not surprising in a conference as unforgiving as the ACC, but no doubt they’ll be a challenge for 18th-ranked and seventh-seeded Gonzga (27-4) when they meet Saturday at UW’s Bank of American Arena.

North Carolina opened the season with five wins and stood 13-1 with a top-five ranking as the ACC season began.

The Tar Heels still get up and down the floor, averaging 76.5 points on offense and forcing 466 turnovers on defense. They closed the conference season with a 64-54 win over sixth-ranked Duke, which is a No. 2 seed, for a 6-8 mark in a conference that has six NCAA tournament teams.

Hatchell said there were also four or five games they let slip away in the closing minutes.

“A lot of that was just our inexperience,” Hatchell said. “Especially on the level we play and in our conference, it’s hard to go out there and be the top team with a bunch of freshmen. But they’ve grown up, they’ve gotten better and they’ve learned to compete.”

The five freshmen have combined for 38 starts, 20.7 points and 16.1 rebounds – but are minus-73 in assists-to-turnovers.

The leading scorers are junior guards Italee Lucas (14.7) and Cetera DeGraffenreid (14.3), who also hands out five assists per game. After that there are four players who average between 7.0 and 8.5 points.

Laura Bloomfield, a 6-1 junior, is the top rebounder (7.9), with 6-5 sophomore Chay Shegog grabbing 5.9 and 6-6 freshman Waltiea Rollie 4.6.

Tags: NCAA women