Fighting for 1,000

Sylvia Hatchell stood to the edge of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center court, trying to conceal her postgame jitters from a milestone win. She couldn’t hide the smirk on the side of her mouth — the same one she’s shown for four decades on the bench — as her players enveloped the North Carolina coach in a congratulatory huddle like no other.

The players could hardly wait for the buzzer before rushing to her side. They handed her a Carolina blue hat with the interlocking UNC logo, and a shirt, too.

“Put it on!” cheered Destinee Walker, a junior guard. “Put the hat on!”

Walker fitted the hat around Hatchell’s head, but the Hall of Fame coach casually removed it, still grinning, and instead donned the shirt as her players erupted in chants of “1K!”

Sylvia Hatchell, the shirt read. 1000 wins! Beyond Amazing!

This win, a 79-63 victory over Grambling State, was merely a footnote. She had won 999 times before — 727 at North Carolina and 272 at Francis Marion in Florence, S.C., an hour from where she stood. But the milestone itself, something only two women's basketball coaches had reached before her, was cause for celebration.

And this, her 1,000th win, comes as she tries to return the program to a summit it’s only reached under her guidance.

“I just can't believe I've coached that many games,” she said.

Almost 42 years after her first career win, she still gets those nervous jitters before each one. It’s what keeps her on the bench, fanning the fire and feisty competitiveness that has fueled her career. She says she’ll coach until the day that feeling fades — and that day isn’t coming soon.

"I've got it now just as much as ever,” she said.

Head coach Sylvia Hatchell (left) has steered North Carolina through its toughest stretch in decades. Photo by Caleb Jones.

Head coach Sylvia Hatchell (left) has steered North Carolina through its toughest stretch in decades. Photo by Caleb Jones.

She felt it before her first win at Francis Marion on Jan. 14, 1976, two years after graduating from Carson-Newman in Tennessee. She felt it again in 1982 — when she led the Patriots to the AIAW small college division championship — and again four years later, before her final win at Francis Marion in the 1986 NAIA national championship game.

She certainly felt those nervous jitters before her first game leading the Tar Heels, a home win over Northwestern State. Eight years later, she felt them the strongest of all, before the 1994 NCAA Championship. When Charlotte Smith hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to push UNC past Louisiana Tech, Hatchell became the only coach to win a national title at the NCAA, NAIA and AIAW levels. The jitters subsided, if only for a moment.

They were there, of course, in 2006 — when Hatchell led the Tar Heels back to the Final Four and was named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year. They were there the next year, too, when UNC won a school-record 34 games en route to a second-straight Final Four berth.

They were there a year later, in 2008, when Hatchell clinched her eighth ACC title with the Tar Heels. And they were there in 2013, when Hatchell earned her 900th career victory.

But the past 100 wins have been the hardest.

In October 2013, Hatchell was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. In November, the Tar Heels would integrate the No. 1 recruiting class to a 29-win team from the year before. But Hatchell was diagnosed with leukemia weeks after the enshrinement. She missed the entire season, as longtime assistant coach Andrew Calder led the team to the Elite Eight in Stanford, Calif.

She felt jitters before that game, too, even as she watched from afar. If the Tar Heels beat the Cardinal, she promised to coach them in the Final Four. They lost by nine.

Hatchell finished treatment in May 2014 and returned that fall, but leading scorer Diamond DeShields didn’t join her. Instead, the top prospect from 2013 transferred to Tennessee, where Pat Summitt — a close friend of Hatchell's and the first coach to reach 1,000 wins — had coached for almost four decades. North Carolina won 26 games anyway, one short of its 2013-14 total, before losing to top-seeded South Carolina in the Sweet 16.

But Hatchell faced another battle: the NCAA’s investigation into UNC.

Jessica Washington, one of the four 2013 commits, transferred to Kansas in the summer of 2015. Stephanie Mavunga left for Ohio State, nearer to her home state of Indiana. And Allisha Gray — who won the WNBA Rookie of the Year this past September after going fourth in the 2017 draft — joined the same Gamecocks who knocked UNC out of the tournament that March.

So Hatchell faced her biggest on-court challenge yet. She held multiple open tryouts before the 2015-16 season, courting walk-ons and transfers alike to replace the entirety of her prized 2013 recruiting class. She handed the keys to sophomore guard Jamie Cherry, threw heavy minutes at freshman guards Walker and Stephanie Watts and pushed her makeshift  roster with that same fire from her entire career.

She felt those nervous jitters before each game, and they were justified. The Tar Heels finished with 14 wins, the fewest by Hatchell’s squad in two decades. They finished 15-16 the next year, marking the first back-to-back losing seasons since before the 1994 title run.

But she kept fighting. She developed transfer guard Paris Kea, a Greensboro native who went from a backup at Vanderbilt to a Preseason All-ACC member this year with UNC. She recruited Jaelynn Murray, the 2017 South Carolina Player of the Year, and Janelle Bailey, the 2017 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year. Eventually, she knew the wins would come.

“I focus on my purpose,” Hatchell said on Tuesday, “not my problems.”

And now, after years of problems, that purpose is coming to fruition. The Tar Heels have won eighth straight, the longest streak since 2014. They’ve won their past six games by an average of 21 points, and their 35-point win over Presbyterian on Dec. 5 was the team’s third-largest win in the past three seasons.

After years of tumult, Hatchell is steering this program, ever so slowly, toward the standard of triumph that she's known for decades.

She still felt the jitters before Tuesday’s game, though, and with good reason. Grambling State jumped out to a 10-2 lead, and the Tar Heels trailed the entire first quarter. But after mounting a five-point halftime lead, UNC didn’t look back, outrebounding the Tigers by 20 in the second half en route to a 16-point win. It could have been bigger, too, had North Carolina not turned it over on its final three possessions.

But who can blame the players? Their minds were on the sidelines, where Hatchell was seconds away from her 1,000th career win and 28th win in Myrtle Beach, just 60 miles from where her career started.

“This is like our second home,” Hatchell said.

Their first home is Carmichael Arena, where the Tar Heels will host Mercer on Dec. 28 in their non-conference finale. Hatchell will surely have jitters before that one, too.

And until the feeling fades, she’ll keep fighting for the next milestone.

@CJacksonCowart

Main photo by Smith Hardy