whirlwind game against Syracuse, capping a six-game win streak with a phenomenal second half performance. In retrospect, that moment resembled nothing so much as Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff into open space and continuing to sprint on thin air. He can make it, the silly creature, if he just keeps pumping those scrawny cartoon legs and remains blissfully ignorant to the reality of the situation.
Everything that's happened to Carolina since has been the moment where he looks down. A forlorn glance at the camera, a poink poink eye blink, and he vanishes from the frame. Cut to an overhead shot of him, all four limbs splayed out, sound-tracked by a cheesy "bombs away" slide whistle as he recedes at terminal velocity toward the canyon floor. There is a puff of smoke on impact. Then he's clawing his way out of a crater that is a perfect silhouette of his person, walking all scrunched up and mangled while accordion music plays. His brow is comically furrowed as he slinks off screen. The shot fades out.
That Syracuse game, almost a month ago, is the most recent victory the Heels have notched this season. They've now lost seven straight, all except one (Georgia Tech) by double digits. Sylvia Hatchell earned a two-game suspension, and Xylina McDaniel is out for the season with yet another soul-crushing injury in a career that's already seen far too many. I've seen two of those bleak outings in person.
1.7: Miami, January 17th. Aggie's parents were in town, so we traded our usual season tickets for a four-pack one section over and went to the game with them. I've been ranting all year about our short bench being the eventual death of us, and losing Xylina really was the nail in the coffin. The first time Sylvia subbed in Erika Johnson, I looked at Ags' father and said "well, you've just seen the entire bench rotation." (This is not entirely the coaches' fault. Four of the kiddos on that bench are either injured or sitting out a season because of transfers. I just think they should be giving the ones that can play more burn, partly to get them some in-game run, but mostly to give the starters a break. The cumulative effect of that many minutes can linger, and I worry about what happens down the road.) Anyway, the Miami was not a good showing. Steph had 9 boards and a team-high 19 points, but she did so on an inefficient 8-23 from the floor. Both 'Dea and Hill tossed up double-doubles, but for naught. Corlina hung close in the first half and clawed back to several ties, but never led again after a 14-13 edge late in the opening quarter. Miami didn't blow us off the floor, they just outplayed us consistently all game long. When the buzzer sounded, it felt like a much worse loss than the 76-61 final would indicate.
1.8: Louisville, February 4. Tonight's game was rough viewing. We started by spotting the Cardinals two points before opening tip on a pregame administrative technical foul which, whatever. The refs were garbage all night and I continue to believe that ACC officials are the most incompetent humans walking the earth. Once again, the ladies came out strong and played an excellent first half. Then, as in every game since 'Cuse, the second half went dismal as our legs went out from under us. The 10-point lead the Heels had with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter evaporated in a wash of bricks and turnovers and overall haphazard play. They never recovered because recovery can't happen without rest, and their is none to give with our current rotational dearth. Carolina gamely plugged away, but all of 'Dea's heart and truly astounding athleticism, all of Des and Steph's dynamism, couldn't do it at half-speed. Their legs are gone, and they won't be back this season. And Jamie, poor Jamie Cherry. Pumpkin looks exhausted. Leading the team, playing damn near nonstop every game because there simply is no one else. She has the weight of the world on her right now, and it's taking a toll.
The starters (plus Erika) can hang with anyone in the country. I really believe that. South Carolina, UConn, anyone. They're that good. Jamie is turning into a superb floor general. 'Dea is a goddess of the hybrid wing/post. Des is a freaking offensive wizard. Steph can do everything, including ridiculous chase-down blocks like the one she had tonight. Hill throws up double-doubles with ease. Erika is the perfect sixth player off the bench. But right now every contest is a crash site somewhere in the third quarter because they have literally zero help. That's unsustainable no matter how great the talent, how exacting and refined the fitness and conditioning regimen. Dead legs can't win games, and this is a team full of them right now.
And you know what? They don't care. They will fight and scrap and be brilliant even unto the point of exhaustion. Given the totality of the variables stacked against them, this was maybe always going to be a lost season, but they damn sure aren't going to quit. And we will love them for it and be there for the whole glorious experience.