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.  

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