North Carolina, South Carolina prepare for rematch
North Carolina's Xylina McDaniel offers a simple observation of her upcoming opponent, South Carolina: "They are a No. 1 seed," she said, "but they are beatable."
Just three months ago, the Tar Heels handed the Gamecocks their first loss of the season with an eight-point win on a neutral court in Myrtle Beach.
The stage is far bigger now as they gear up to face off again, both teams just two wins away from a trip to the Final Four.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who led her team to a 29-4 record and the first top seed in program history, sees little benefit in studying tape from that December meeting in preparation for Sunday night's rematch in the NCAA tournament's Stanford Regional semifinals.
"We took a peek at it. I don't think you can take much from the game aside from some little things, adjustments we can make," Staley said Saturday. "I think both teams are playing at a different level, so you have to get more current."
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels (26-9) hope to keep winning so they can welcome coach Sylvia Hatchell back to the bench after her battle with leukemia. Doctors have said she has a good chance to travel to Nashville, Tenn., if North Carolina can reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
This is a new game for both teams.
"It was a very exciting game, we were happy to end up on top in that game," North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said. "I think both teams have changed since then ... and South Carolina is a much-improved team. They have changed their identity. They're making more of an emphasis to play inside-outside basketball."
Here are five things to watch for Sunday night's game:
BRAGGING RIGHTS: All the way out in California, these teams will play for bragging rights in the Carolinas.
Gamecocks forward Aleighsa Welch used to play against Tar Heels guard N'Dea Bryant, and promised there would be some friendly banter back and forth.
"It's a battle of Carolinas," South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell said. "It's kind of like a bragging thing at the end of the day. We want to be on top. Energy's going to be high, attitude, spirit's going to be high. We're going to try to calm down."
TRAVEL DIFFERENCES: While North Carolina traveled cross country, South Carolina stayed out West after winning two games in Seattle.
So, only one team is likely to be road weary despite playing so far from home.
"I think our players have been acclimated to Pacific time," Staley said.
SHOOTING STREAKS: Staley doesn't care about the stats from the first meeting, when her Gamecocks shot 1 for 11 from 3-point range.
She'll settle for her post players being steady in the paint and finishing their chances.
"Defensively, we need to guard the 3," Staley said. "We're not a 3-point shooting team. If we can be efficient out there it will help our ballclub. Most important is our post players being 15 for 23."
North Carolina freshman guard Diamond DeShields is averaging 18.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
"At this stage of the game we have to pull out all the stops," Staley said.
PLAYING FOR THEIR COACH: If the Tar Heels can win two more games and get to Nashville, Tenn., they likely will be reunited with Hatchell for a feel-good Final Four. The doctors treating Hatchell for leukemia have said clearing her travel for the Final Four is "very doable."
First things first, of course.
Though her cancer is in remission and Hatchell completed her last round of chemotherapy this month, she would serve in a support role if her team keeps winning with Calder still handling coaching duties.
"What happened with coach Hatchell, it hurt us a lot, especially in the beginning," McDaniel said. "We're using her as motivation every single day, in practice and games."
Hatchell and Calder spoke for about 20 minutes Saturday about the game plan, with Hatchell providing the "bullet points."
"For her not to be their head coach this year was difficult," Calder said. "They're working extremely hard for themselves but for her also."
BE THE CHANGE: Over the course of South Carolina's season, the theme has been "Be the Change," with the challenge of helping others by completing 50,000 random acts of kindness. Players wear T-shirts honoring the mantra.
It stemmed from Staley's inspiration following a "life-changing" trip to Africa last summer with the Clinton Foundation — and has transferred to a close relationship of her players on and off the court.
"It starts off the court in how we connect," Welch said. "It shows on the court. We have great team chemistry."