COWART: After years of hope, a promise delivered

I still remember my conversations with Sylvia Hatchell.

We sat down by the court of Carmichael Arena, one seat apart, and watched the North Carolina women’s basketball team try to rediscover the magic it once had. It’s not one singular memory so much as a collection of them over the span of three years — before the season, during practice, after the year — each full of promises that I wasn’t sure the Hall of Fame coach could keep.

“Just wait ‘til next year,” she’d say, gesturing out to her young players: some in casts, all inexperienced. I was skeptical.

I was critical, too, of what I felt was a lack of progress in the face of remarkable adversity. Contenders have crumbled under kinder circumstances than what UNC faced in the summer of 2015, when the lion’s share of its production and potential transferred away amid scandal. But 11 conference wins in three subsequent years leaves a strong aftertaste. Hatchell was selling hope, and I wasn’t buying it.

North Carolina had talent, but it needed good health, and it needed experience. If anything, it needed time, which in the four-year cycle of college basketball is like asking for more sand in the hourglass. By the time you have it, it’s gone again.

“Just wait ‘til next year,” she’d say. “Our moment will come.”

On Sunday, their moment came. The Tar Heels (12-9, 3-4 ACC) held off No. 1 Notre Dame (19-2, 6-1) in a stunning 78-73 win behind an inspired effort from senior Paris Kea and a giant-killer approach that saw UNC force 20 turnovers and hit 11 threes. It was, arguably, the most impressive regular-season win in program history.

It was a win that even Hatchell couldn’t have seen coming from those Carmichael Arena seats some three years ago.

I envy the nearly 5,000 in attendance, from football coach Mack Brown to former women’s basketball star Jamie Cherry to the scores of fans who hoped to see history in the unlikeliest of places. The loudest sporting event I’ve ever attended was, oddly enough, UNC vs. Notre Dame in 2015, when Carmichael Arena became deafening during a late comeback bid led by Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington.

The Tar Heels lost by 10. It was, by far, the closest margin of defeat in the teams’ five meetings since the Irish joined the ACC. And, almost exactly four years later, there was no reason to expect anything different on Sunday against the defending national champions.

Since joining the conference in 2013, Notre Dame had lost 14 times through six seasons. Seven came to Connecticut. Two came in the title game. One loss this year, to UConn, wasn’t enough to keep the defending champion from reclaiming its No. 1 ranking, and a top-ranked team hadn’t lost to an unranked team in 198 games. It’d only happened three times in the past two decades.

Make it four.

That doesn’t happen without Paris Kea, who transferred to UNC at the end of that 2015 summer. Watching from the sidelines the past two years, I could see something special in her game. It was all there: the brilliant passing, the deadly midrange game, the guts and gumption to finish in the lane, come hell or high water. She’d put this team on her back in UNC’s biggest wins of recent years, from the buzzer-beating three against Duke to her stellar ACC Tournament performance in her hometown of Greensboro.

But this, delivering 30 points and 10 assists to topple the No. 1 team in the country? This was different. On Sunday, she became the fourth player in 20 years to drop 30 and 10 on a ranked team. She had enough wrap-around passes to strangle Notre Dame’s defense whole, attacking it from the paint with ease. She sank five of her eight three-point attempts — including a four-point play that ignited the crowd — with a stroke she simply didn’t have in years past, and she scored off a stolen inbounds pass the way only a veteran can.

She’s the fully evolved version of what Hatchell had long promised she could be. In some ways, this entire team is. Now, for at least a night, the program is on center stage as the entire women’s basketball world bears witness.

I'll admit, I haven't followed this team as close as I have in years past. Leaving Chapel Hill in a cap and gown means leaving your assignments — school and work — in the past. In all honesty, it took something like Sunday's win to capture my attention. And I know I'm not alone.

A win like this captures national attention. It gives fans something worth rallying behind: Sunday's crowd was one of the biggest in recent memory, and it'll only get bigger from here. It's something to tout on recruiting trips, something to reminisce about during class reunions. It's a powerful stat buried in a game notes packet years down the line, a bit of trivia for the basketball fan: do you remember the last time an unranked team beat the No. 1 team in the nation?

I do.

It was 2019.

And it was North Carolina.

@CJacksonCowart

Cover Photo courtesy Alex Kormann | UNC Athletic Communications