The fourth-seeded North Carolina women’s basketball team, 27-9 on the season, will face a true road test Tuesday night at 9 p.m. when the Tar Heels take on the second-seeded and veteran-laden Stanford Cardinal, 32-3 on the year, for a spot in the Final Four.
The Tar Heels feature a bevy of talented freshman that have been saying they don’t want to wait for their turn at NCAA Tournament glory.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal find themselves at the other end of the spectrum, veterans with loads of Final Four experience blanket Stanford’s lineup.
The leading freshman in the nation, Carolina’s Diamond DeShields, says the Tar Heels will have to contain Stanford’s star Chiney Ogwumike, a fifth-year senior, in order to harbor any chance of a victory.
“You’ve got pay attention to Chiney down low. I had the opportunity to play with her on the USA basketball team, so it will be nice to reunite on opposite teams. She’s the focal point on their offense and defense. We’re definitely going to figure some things out on how to get around her and how to find a weakness on their defense,” DeShields says.
DeShields goes into Tuesday’s game as a game-time decision following the knee and ankle injuries she sustained in the physical Sweet Sixteen contest with rival South Carolina. But if precedent is any indication, seeing the tough-minded competitor on the sidelines in the biggest game of the year would be a shocker – just take Sunday’s game as an indicator.
“Coach wanted to sit me for the half. I told him that I was ready to play. I didn’t want to have that burden on my shoulders of not having done everything that I could to contribute to the team win. I think that I didn’t hold the team back with my injury. I was still a contributor and was able to produce,” DeShields says.
DeShields acknowledges the rapid development and maturation of the Tar Heels throughout the season. She says she sees improvement in each and every round of postseason play.
“We’ve grown faster as time has gone on. At the beginning, it was a little bit slow. We were making typical freshman mistakes. At this point in the game, we’re growing every day. […] As we continue in this tournament, we are growing a lot faster, only because we have to,” DeShields says.
Associate Head Coach Andrew Calder points to a single moment when he believes his young crop really gained the needed belief they could compete at the highest level.
“When we went to Duke and won at Duke, and Diamond DeShields and Allisha Gray had tremendous games, I thought that was a big turning point for them to realize we can beat anybody. There are 8000 people at Duke,” Coach Calder says.
Freshman Stephanie Mavunga says although not present with the team in California, Head Coach Sylvia Hatchell’s encouragement from afar puts a smile on her face.
“Things like that make me smile and get me motivated. I know she’s going to be able to be at the Final Four game in Nashville if we are able to get there. God willing, we’ll get there. That keeps us going. Before we left, she kept saying, ‘Well, Nashville, there’s the Final Four. There’s an Elite Eight. Why not us? Why not Carolina?’ That always plays back in my head,” Mavunga says.