Another gem for UNC's DeShields

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Make it two in a row for Diamond DeShields and North Carolina in the NCAA tournament.

Not wins, mind you. Sure, the fourth-seeded Tar Heels and their precocious freshman have a couple of those in succession, too. And Tuesday's 62-53 win against fifth-seeded Michigan State means a return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011 and a date opposite top-seeded South Carolina in California. But that is in some ways nothing more than bookkeeping.

The real streak is that for the second game in a row, North Carolina put on a show. It's what the Tar Heels do best. Good, bad and everything between.

But it is always show. On at least that count, they are consistent.

And when it comes to DeShields, it's usually a good show.

After a lackluster showing from the team and its star in the opening round against Tennessee-Martin, pushed to the final seconds by an underdog that left Chapel Hill feeling like it deserved a win in a thriller, North Carolina came out of the gates fast against the Big Ten co-champions. Nobody was more Usain Bolt-like than the freshman.

She finished her first tournament game with three made field goals. She had three inside of five minutes this night and finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, her first career double-double.

"I think UT-Martin poked the beehive there," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "And we got a swarming bunch of bees coming at us early. The biggest one of the bunch was Diamond DeShields. What an impressive freshman. She certainly deserves national freshman of the year.

"I mean, she was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half and a very, very special talent."

She is that and more. She isn't college basketball's best player. Not yet, at least. She is its biggest entertainer.

Which is fitting for a team that isn't basketball's best. Not yet, at least. But it may be its most entertaining or at least its least predictable.

With a little more than 12 minutes remaining in the first half of Tuesday's game and North Carolina in front 16-9 courtesy of 10 quick points from DeShields, she turned the corner on a drive from the top of the key, lost her balance in what may have been an attempt to sell a foul call and slammed headfirst into the leg of Michigan State's Branndais Agee. Down for several moments, she eventually made her way back to the locker room for further evaluation. Or possibly meditation.

"I was just kind of back there trying to regroup, gather my thoughts, get my life together," DeShields quipped.

When she came back to the bench with about eight minutes remaining in the half, the crowd began to voice its appreciation at her return. She motioned with her hands for them to make it just a little bit louder.

Willis Reed probably didn't do that. But it's a new world.

Even she professes not to know from whence her inner entertainer springs.

"I have no idea," DeShields said. "I know God has blessed me with a bunch of talents, and I think that's one of them. I think I'm able to entertain with my athletic abilities and with, I guess, just my demeanor and my swagger on the court.

"People love it, people hate it. It don't matter to me; I'm going to keep doing it."

It can be too much at times, as it was when she drew a technical for taunting in the ACC tournament, a call that forced her to come off the bench in Sunday's first-round game because of a team rule relating to technicals. She had plenty of stares for the Spartans on Tuesday, and perhaps a few carefully considered words, the product of a perceived verbal slight from the Spartans after the first round that she referenced but on the specifics of which she wouldn't elaborate.

And yet she manages to pull it off most of the time, finding that delicate balance between charm and arrogance. The confidence is real, the swagger seems an act.

It doesn't hurt that she can put her jump shot where her mouth is.

The Big Ten was home this season to three of the nation's most prolific scorers. Minnesota's Rachel Banham, Nebraska's Jordan Hooper and Penn State's Maggie Lucas all averaged better than 20 points per game. Asked where guarding DeShields fit in the context of players like that, Michigan State's coach shook her head.

"It's not even close," Merchant said. "When she's what she was tonight, you can't stop her. I mean, her elevation on her jumper -- I don't think Madison Williams at 6-foot-7, if she was 100 percent healthy, could get to that shot. It's impressive."

For all that it is, North Carolina is still a work in progress when it comes to putting teams away. By halftime Tuesday, Michigan State had wriggled its way back within nine points, still on the decidedly short end of the stick but not out of the contest. A few stops early in the second half and the Tar Heels might be right back on the hot seat they survived Sunday. Merchant came out of the locker room intent on slowing DeShields.

On the first possession of the half, Michigan State threw a junk defense at DeShields. When she caught the ball at the top of the key, Klarissa Bell, one of the Big Ten's best defenders, and Annalise Pickrel, a long-armed nuisance, jumped out to trap her. DeShields slid by both of them on the right side, pulled up and elevated for a long jumper. Of course it dropped through the net, pushing her total to 18 points for the game.

Later in the half, she gave Bell a quick pump fake that would have left a lesser defender grasping at air. Bell didn't bite. Unbothered, DeShields simply took another dribble to her right and dropped in a step-back jumper. She had plenty of help on both ends of the court during a second half run that buried the Spartans, who were flattered by a misleading final score. But she was in command.

"Her speed, her quickness, her elevation -- when she decides to play, she's one of the best I've been against," Merchant said.

That's the mix. She wins basketball games and puts on a show along the way. As long as it is in that order, it's hard to complain. It has been that way since she was in high school. When there were enough people in the stands that she started to notice the gasps and oohs and aahs that accompanied her movements. She became part conductor, able to command that response.

"That's normal for me, but I understand a lot of people aren't physically capable of doing what I do," DeShields said of the reaction her play drew in high school. "And so I just kind of used that to get the crowd involved, knowing that I'm capable of doing something some people haven't seen before for a female."

What's also remarkable is that by all appearances, this team gets along even with such a strong personality at the head of a large and confident freshman class that also includes Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington. It's not as if the season has been so flawless that fissures couldn't have surfaced. That is perhaps all you need to know there is nothing malicious in her manner.

"She's funny, that's one of the things people don't know about her," assistant coach Tracey Williams-Johnson said of DeShields a few steps outside the locker room Tuesday night. "She's really funny and she's giddy, she likes to have fun, she likes to play video games, she likes to crack jokes. She just likes to laugh. Matter of fact, that's here laughing right now."

But the court is different. That is her stage, be it at home in Chapel Hill, on the road at Duke or even in practice.

"Diamond is Diamond all the time," junior Latifah Coleman said. "She's a competitor. She competes in practice. What you see out there is what we see in practice. She competes."

And she heads to the Sweet 16 as the best show going.

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