Sunday, November 22, 2015

Notes From Carmichael 1.2 and 1.3

Photo by Agatha Donkar
The Tar Heels hosted and played in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Women's Challenge this weekend.  It's one of those round robin mim-tourneys that break up the season, and this iteration featured Carolina, Fairleigh Dickinson, Iona, and Yale.  Due to work, I missed Friday night's tilt with Fairleigh Dickinson (as well as last Wednesday's complete and total demolition of Florida A&M.)  Looking at the box score and hearing Ags' recounting of events, Friday was not a great game save for Hillary Summers' 20 points and 13 boards, but we still dispatched the Knights without too much difficulty.  The rest of the weekend was a tougher row to hoe. 

1.2: Iona Man, Iona has some ballers on their roster.  Most notably, junior do-everything guard Marina Lizarazu.  She's got deft handles, excellent court vision, an incredibly versatile offensive game, and a tenacious defensive presence.  She plays with the kind of constant, searching propulsion that can occasionally get players into trouble but is more often an asset.  As you may know, they grow some damned fine basketball players in Spain (she hails from Madrid), and Lizarazu was deeply impressive all afternoon.  The other Gaels standout was forward Joy Adams, who drifted into open space or darted off screens and put in buckets before the Heels could get out to contest.  Perimeter defense continues to be something of a concern for the Heels against teams who move the ball well or play decent slash'n'kick, and Iona does both.  So a game that should have been something of a walk given the overall talent disparity turned into a slog in the second half.

Luckily for us, N'Dea Bryant and Stephanie Watts played excellent games, and Destinee Walker continued her freshman coming out party, pouring in 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting including going 5/6 from deep.  After we failed to put the game away in the third quarter like we should have, Iona surged back down the stretch.  The defense got sloppy, the offense got careless, and the Gaels got a lot of ground back in a hurry.  Thankfully, Des shot the lights out of the flippin' building to maintain the lead, and the Heels firmed up when they had to on both ends of the floor.  This was not an elegant win, but the job got done.

1.3: Yale  Another one Carolina should have had in the bag well before the final buzzer.  Yale plays fast and they've got size on the Heels, and they have no quit in them.  They played hard and fought like hell and didn't back down an inch.  We had them in a double-digit hole at halftime, and things looked to be well in hand.  Then the Bulldogs came out and bisected that deficit within two minutes in the third quarter. This forced Sylvia Hatchell to call one of her angry timeouts.  You know, the ones that mean "I will make you run suicides for twelve straight hours tomorrow if you don't get it together!!!"  So the Heels pushed their collective tachometer into the red.  N'Dea Bryant went into the paint and just skyed over ever living body for crucial rebounds.  My lord, she was transcendent.  Xylina McDaniel is playing herself back into game shape, and she flashed some low post brilliance today that will only become more potent.  When she gets all the way back, she's going to be a straight-up force.  And Jamie killed it down the stretch.  Yale kept pounding away, and we kept responding.  This was a win that required focus and heart and intuition, and Carolina had just enough of all three to get the job done.

Other Observations.

1. Jamie hasn't shaken all of the ill-advised bravado out of her game quite yet.  There were a few saucy/difficult passes this weekend that shouldn't have been attempted, and the outcomes were not good.  But she is worlds ahead of the erratic talent she was last season, and clearly capable of leading this team.  That kind of fearlessness can be problematic at times, but she counterbalances it with so much excellence that it's not really an issue. 

2. Damn our kiddos are going to be special.  The freshmen are showing up and showing out already and they are fully prepared to light some things on fire like West Virginia football fans.  This is going to be fabulous.

3.  I will stand on this soapbox until the Dove bar within is ground to a fine powder.  Sylvia has got to expand the bench.  If she keeps running this six-or-seven deep rotation all season, the whole thing will be shot by February.

That's all.  After a lackluster start, we're on a winning streak and rolling into the heart of the season.  Go Heels. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Notes From Carmichael 0.1 and 1.1

Photo by Agatha Donkar

0.1  We reached an agreement when I moved to Chapel Hill.  It was a simple diplomatic accord designed to keep household strife to a minimum, and it went like this: I would root for Tar Heel basketball with all my heart if Aggie would root for Georgia football with all of hers.  (Let's not discuss how the football side of that plan has worked out so far this season.  Seriously, I don't want to talk about it.)  Ags is a 3rd-generation Carolina alum, and they take that bit about "Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred and when I die I'm a Tar Heel dead" very seriously here, so I figured it was either get on board with that or sleep on the couch for the rest of eternity.  Her father came to his Tar Heel fandom in a similar fashion when he married her mother, and there's an oft-recounted story of him looking to her after experiencing Carolina's first March Madness loss (the '77 Final against Marquette) and asking "does it always hurt this much?"  To which she replied "oh no, honey, sometimes it hurts much worse than this."  So I was going to love and then have my heartbroken.  Well, being from Atlanta, I'm pretty comfortable relating to sports that way.

What I didn't anticipate was falling absolutely head-over-Heels in love with the Carolina women's team.  When I was visiting Chapel Hill last year, we went to watch the ladies play blow the doors off Appalachian State, and I was just instantly smitten.  They were incredibly fun to watch, and played Carolina basketball to the bone, which is to say they ran their asses off, shot well, played ferocious defense, and dove for every loose ball.  That team was all verve and speed and joyful fury.  I remember head coach Sylvia Hatchell, a living legend after whom one of our kittens is named, alternately screaming at her girls when a possession faltered and then playing a sly little smile on her face when the offense hummed and and the ball zinged and yet another poor App State defender got her ankles flat broke.  I remember the spring-coiled grace of senior point guard Latifah Coleman, burning up the floor and whipping passes or blowing straight by everyone for a beautiful finish at the rim.  I remember Allisha Gray being a freaking offensive wizard who could do whatever she wanted with the ball in her hands.  I remember Jessica Washington draining a few shots with that funny but effective little leg-kick jumper of hers, playing pitbull defense, and one especially vivid image of her hurtling across the floor after a loose ball even though the game was well in hand by then and she maybe didn't need to.  I remember Megan Buckland's fantastic defensive footwork on the perimeter.  I remember Stephanie Mavunga absolutely destroying people in the paint on both ends of the floor, showing off a post game to be feared and a smothering defensive presence.  

Mostly, I remember the instant connection I felt to that team.  I turned to Aggie as we were walking out of Carmichael Arena and said "we have to get season tickets!"  I was moving up in January, and my God did I want to watch the Heels again, as many times as possible.

We went through the rest of the season loving and learning that team, their ticks and quirks and all the minutiae that makes following a team closely so much fun.  Everyone got a nickname, or at least we referred to them as if we were on a first-name basis.  ("Good shot, 'Lisha!"  "Nice pass, Danielle!")  By the end of the year, we could look at an opposing team during shoot around and know instantly which lineups Sylvia would favor in the game, what sets they were going to run, how the defensive rotations would probably shake out.  We watched them grow, the freshmen and sophomores deciphering things game by game, the juniors and seniors keeping them moving forward, a word of encouragement or a stern lecture always offered when it was needed.  And Sylvia presiding like the matriarchal goddess she is over the whole operation.

I utterly and completely adored that 2014-15 team.  That tournament loss to South Carolina broke my heart in a way that said "you're on this train for keeps, now, son."  And I am. 

This summer, Aggie and I spotted Sylvia Hatchell in the garden section of a Home Depot.  After working up our courage, we went over to tell her how much we enjoyed watching that team, how much the season had meant to us.  "Well thank you," she said.  "I hope you come back!"  Of course we were coming back, and we told her so, but looking at it now and remembering her demeanor as she said it, I think she probably knew what was going to happen later. 

The team I have just described to you no longer exists.  Some of that is natural; kids graduated and went on to whatever futures await them after donning that iconic white/blue argyle for the last time.  (Miss you, 'Tifah , Danielle, Megs, and Brit!)  Some of it is not natural and is very, very sad.  The academic scandal that rocked the Carolina athletic department probably did more damage to the women's basketball team than anyone else.  Stephanie Mavunga, Allisha Gray, and Jessica Washington, three absolutely critical players, departed during the offseason.  While they didn't all say so explicitly, it seems reasonable to assume that they did this to avoid the NCAA sanctions that are likely forthcoming.  Also gone is assistant coach and legendary former Carolina player Ivory Latta, though she may simply have wanted to focus more fully on her playing career, as she said in her farewell.

Of the players who made me fall in love with the Tar Heel women's team, only a handful are here for the new season.  Jamie Cherry, ready to start at point guard now.  The Hillarys (Summers and Fuller), who should assume more prominent roles this year.  Reserve forward Erika Johnson, and Xylina McDaniel, and incredible talent whose career has been (and is still, as of this writing) hampered by injuries. Everyone else is a new face, an unknown quantity.  I wanted so badly to watch the ladies who left play another season, but I'm also excited to see this new team, to learn them and love them the way I did last year.  This is Carolina women's basketball 2015, and that's all I need to get hyped for this season. 

*We have season tickets, but won't make it to every game this season because of various other obligations; mostly the fact that we have to work.  However, every game I make it to and all the away games I can watch on TV will get a "Notes From Carmichael" column, because I decided last year I wanted to make chronicling this team a permanent and essential part of my sports writing.  Much of the reason I've been shaking off the rust and writing more again recently, aside from just plain missing it, was to prepare to do this job the best I could for the Heels.  Welcome to the inaugural edition.  I hope you keep reading.  I hope you have as much fun as I will this season.  Let's get to it. 

1.1  The first thing Aggie said when I got home Friday night was: "Well, the good news is, Jamie stopped throwing that pass."  Jamie Cherry is our tremendously talented, pocket-sized sophomore point guard, and she had a habit last season on accelerating on the break, sprinting to the right at the top of the key, and whipping an ill-advised one-handed entry pass to a cutting big in heavy traffic.  These forays rarely ended well, and they were something she was going to have to sort out before becoming a starter this year.  Apparently, she has.  The bad news, apparently, was that we have a team full of freshman and walk-ons and transfers filling out the roster around Jamie, N'Dea, and The Hillarys, and they're still finding their identity in real time.

I missed the opening game, a loss against Gardener Webb, because work is a thing that sometimes has to happen while basketball is going on.  Ags went with her best friend, and reported that Friday played out almost identically to the game we went through this afternoon, so you can consider this a meta-recap of the opener as well as an actual recap of today's tilt with Oregon.

What I noticed at shoot around: Jamie can still bomb threes, N'Dea's shot looks more polished and her footwork has more fluidity than it did, and freshman phenom Destinee Walker has that smooth, cat-quick release you see in Steph Curry and some very nice handles, too.

What I failed to notice at shoot around: Oregon's team is HUGE, LONG, and FAST.  When they were just putting up jumpers at the far end of Carmichael, I thought "we're going to be at a size disadvantage here."  As soon as they went into a layup line and I could watch them run and really see that speed and size at work and those looooong arms unfolding, I thought "oh #*$%&^, that's gonna be a problem!!!"

Despite the massive size deficit, we did a (mostly) good job of denying the Ducks a lot of offensive time in the paint.  They didn't get more than a handful of entry passes inside cleanly all game, and when they did, their overwhelming height couldn't totally make up for a general lack of footwork.  Aside from the outstanding Jillian Alleyne, not one of Oregon's massive frontcourt players had much going either back-to-the-basket or with a face-up game.  The two defensive issues I was worried most about before tip, getting hammered in the post and killed on the glass, weren't all that much of a problem for us.  The problem was that Oregon can pass and shoot, and our defensive rotations on the perimeter were kind of garbage.  The Ducks didn't really run in transition (too big and plodding), but they all knew how to work a half-court game to death until someone came open for a shot, and they lit up Carolina with uncontested corner threes all day.  Over and over, they'd ping-pong the ball around the perimeter, loosening things up and getting the defense moving.  Then someone would catch and hold or take a dribble, and the sheer size would draw an extra Tar Heel into either a full-on double team or just a crucial few steps out of position.  Then back went the ball, whipping out and around to a wide open shooter, and man, Oregon was vicious from long range.  (They went 44.8% from deep for the game.)  We were perpetually three steps too slow closing out, or too far out of position to even think about getting back to the shooter.  Oregon didn't win with size by bludgeoning us with it, but it made the help defense collapse on whoever had the ball because they looked too big to guard one-on-one, and that was the Heels' undoing.

The behemoth Ducks proved even more problematic for Carolina's offense.  As Aggie pointed out, we can't run like we did last year because the front court just isn't as fast and talented as it was, not yet anyway.  Oregon was also fast enough in defensive transition that it might not have mattered.  Anyway, we set up in half-court sets most of the afternoon, and it became readily apparent that entry passes to the post were a fool's errand at best.  Those huge defenders weren't going to give up anything inside, even to a talent like Hillary Summers.  So we relied on outside shooting and outhustling the Ducks on the glass.  (The final rebounding total was 35-34 in Oregon's favor, but we were flying into the paint all day when shots went up, athleticism making up for size and leading to putbacks or at least extending possessions.  It was actually pretty incredible to watch us jumping over and around and in front of Oregon's massive front line to continually snag boards.)    

Only three things worked offensively: dribble handoffs at the top of the key that tilted Oregon's D just enough to open up some seems inside; some nice but inconsistent shooting from Jamie (who shot the lights out from deep) Stephanie Watts, N'Dea Bryant, and Destinee Walker; and sending players barreling into the teeth of Oregon's D to draw fouls and get to the line.  (We were 15/21 from the stripe to the Ducks' 6/10.)

Ultimately, it wasn't enough.  As the seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter, Jamie dribbled to the right at the top of the key, upfaked an Oregon defender out of her sneakers, took one step to the right, and buried a trey to pull us within one.  A last-gasp possession saw her very nearly sink another to win it, but the ball was just a hair off line.  It rattled on the rim and then bounced out.  It was a tough loss, our second in a row.  But there's plenty of season ahead, and all the hope in the world for Carolina to come together.  If the flashes we saw today can be refined and made into a consistent identity, this team is going to be fierce.

Other observations:

1. This is Jamie Cherry's team now.  She's running the offense and playing harder than anyone at the other end.  I particularly remember her sliding into the paint as one of Oregon's huge guards drove the lane and drawing a charge as someone a full foot taller than her sent her to the deck.  When the refs whistled the call, Jamie lay on the floor pumping both fists and screaming at the sky, thrilled to have gotten herself layed out in the name of getting us one extra possession, one little extra edge.  She's only a sophomore, but the team is following her example and taking on her identity.  Oh, and she will still fearlessly can a three in anybody's mug.  Jamie Cherry is an ice-cold assassin, and I love her for it.

2. Destinee.  Freaking.  Walker.  Her line today wasn't all that great (14 points on 5-of-15 shooting) but man, she's got the goods.  Just smooth.  I can't properly articulate how amped I am to watch that young lady play basketball for the next four years.

3. Sylvia Hatchell doesn't trust her bench yet this season.  Like, at all.  Erika Johnson was the only reserve who entered the game today.  (14 minutes, 4 points, 5 boards.)  Other than that, the starters played every second.  The same thing happened in Friday's season opener.  The rotation is going to have to expand, and soon.  Your guess is as good as mine who steps up, but you can't survive a season playing this way.

Thanks for reading the first (but definitely not last) "Notes From Carmichael."  I hope you're ready to enjoy this season with me.  Go Heels.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Does Anyone Remember Laughter?

I just ... well, damnit.  I don't know what to say here.  Today the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels.  They did not get entirely hosed in the exchange, but it was still a tremendously idiotic move.  Not only did they not get equal value, but they divested the team of its last truly compelling player.  (This with all due respect to Freddie Freeman, whose on-field exploits and magical dugout hug rituals are things of beauty.)  What happened today just flat killed my already-tattered baseball soul.

Look, I was a kid in the '80s, when the Braves were a garbage pile of a team.  You could go to Fulton County Stadium with tickets in the cheap seats and wind up six rows deep on one of the baselines by the fourth inning because what did the ushers and security care?  The joint was an empty tomb anyway.  The PA announcer would come on in the seventh to give us the attendance for the game, and the figure would be something like 1,639.  On a good night.  Awful baseball I can live with.  But even in those dark days of my childhood, at least we had Dale Murphy.  Murph gave you a reason to be one of those sorry few at the ballpark on any given night, because there was always the chance he was going to to something spectacular.  The fact that he now has to rely on the Veterans' Committee to hopefully make Cooperstown someday enrages me beyond belief.  Part of this is admittedly biased, nostalgic drivel, but gawd, I loved watching Dale Murphy play baseball.  Simmons was the closest I've come since to having that feeling again.

This is not to say he was a more iconic Brave than the list of spectacular names that dotted those '90s rosters.  (Though if the front office had the basic, fundamental sense to keep him around, he would have been.)  What I mean is that rebuilding is a tough, grueling process.  The writing's been on the wall for quite a few seasons now.  Braves fans are experiencing the inevitable bottoming out which is ultimately fine and in the natural order of sports fandom.  Stuff happens, and after that incredible stretch in the '90s, we can live with it.  But that pain can be considerably lessened by the presence of a singular player whose very existence is reason enough to keep going to the yard game after meaningless game.  Not too long ago, we had a few of those guys.  The reasons we loved them varied wildly, but we adored the ramshackle cast of misfits that made the Braves fun during this nadir.  Then, in the name of whatever bizarre long-term "plan" is unfolding, we traded them.  ALL of them. 

Evan Gattis, El Oso Blanco, not bothering with batting gloves or any other nonsense.  He had one of the great stories in recent sports history, and just hit the bejesus out of the ball.  Gone.   

Alex Wood was a homegrown Dawg, the promising young arm that might have been our redemption for trading away Adam Wainwright, another belvoed UGA alum.  Gone.

Craig Kimbrell, a monster whose bullpen intro sequence was almost as galvanizing as the pure flame-emoji gas he mowed people down with.  Oh, and that weird full-hunch posture he had when looking in for the next sign.  I always worried he was going to screw his back up doing that, but it was unique and I loved him for it along with everything else.  Gone.  

Those guys I loved, who kept me riveted even as the win-loss column skewed ever more precipitously, kept disappearing.  If the front office is after something larger here, it's hard to see it clearly through the haze of anguish.  Sometime late this summer, when both of our teams had become a true chore to watch, Aggie asked me how I felt about the Braves.  My response: "I'll be fine as long as we don't trade Simmons."

And today we did.  Already the best defensive player of his generation, already projecting as maybe the best shortstop who ever lived, and we let him go.  This was more than jettisoning a franchise player for a batch of prospects that might ultimately secure the team's future down the road.  This was trading outright greatness, rare and unattainable by anyone else, for pennies on the dollar.  Simmons did things on the field every night that defied logic and physics and just made you gasp with delight.  There are a small handful of people capable of that sort of brilliance playing sports at any level at any given time, and losing one at any price just isn't worth it.