Youth on display for UNC, MSU

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_Value

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There is no shortage of history in Carmichael Arena, full-time home of North Carolina women's basketball, current NCAA tournament site and a building that will celebrate its 50th birthday next year.

But more of the past is history for some than for others.

Forget the days when the men's teams under Dean Smith made the place a fortress. That is increasingly history less remembered than read and retold. Consider that when Charlotte Smith's jumper dropped through the net in Richmond, Va., on April 3, 1994, and gave North Carolina its only national championship, Michigan State's Aerial Powers was not yet three months old. Teammates Tori Jankosa and Branndais Agee wouldn't arrive for months.

It would be almost a year until North Carolina's Diamond DeShields, Allisha Gray and Stephanie Mavunga were born.

Youth will be served Tuesday night in this grand old basketball barn with a place in the Sweet 16 on the line. It certainly featured prominently Sunday. A heralded freshman class barely survived in No. 4 seed North Carolina's 60-58 win against No. 13 UT Martin, shortly after Powers paced fifth-seeded Michigan State to a 91-61 win against No. 12 seed Hampton in her first NCAA tournament game.

"It's fun to watch," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said of a national youth movement that includes those here and Baylor's Nina Davis, who put on a show in her first-round game Saturday. "We need some excitement in our game, and the youth is a positive. Hopefully people get hooked on watching an Aerial or a Tori or a Branndais or a Nina. Or Diamond -- obviously people love her. She's a special, special player, clearly.

"It might bring fans back for four straight years, which is never a bad thing -- and create some new ones."

It was a strange day in Chapel Hill. There was the bizarre, an extended delay at the start of the second half of the second game when the scoreboard over the center of the court was lowered almost to the floor while repairs were made. There was the comical, North Carolina's Xylina McDaniel catching a tipped ball on her backside and hitting a shot from the same position in the middle of a season-saving rally. And there was the serious, a campus-wide alert for an armed suspect that led to Carmichael being locked down even as play continued.

Against that backdrop, the peculiarity of the upset that UT Martin appeared poised to spring seemed almost preordained.

One of the nation's highest scoring teams in the regular season, UT Martin came out with a much more deliberate approach in Sunday's game. Instead of pressing, as is his usual wont, coach Kevin McMillan ran a triangle-and-two defense designed not so much to stop the Tar Heels as frustrate them. McMillan denied the strategy, born of getting run off the floor by athletically superior teams in three previous NCAA tournament appearances, had much to do with exploiting North Carolina's youthful impatience, but it was it couldn't have hurt.

When UT Martin's Jasmine Newsome, who along with teammate Heather Butler entered the game as two of the four active leading scorers in all of NCAA Division I basketball, converted a Shoni Schimmel-esque three-point play with three seconds left in the first half, the Tar Heels looked lost, unsure what was happening and unable to counter.

"We were just going to continue what we were doing because that was the game plan," Newsome said. "To get them frustrated and get them to stand around on offense, which they did the majority of the game."

Never afraid to speak her mind, DeShields admitted after the game that she felt she and the team "weren't mentally prepared" for the game, the first NCAA tournament game for three regular starters and a key reserve (DeShields wasn't in the starting lineup because of a team rule related to the technical foul she picked up in the ACC final).

"It did feel kind of off because this is like a surreal experience for me," DeShields said. "You dream about playing in the NCAA tournament, and now it's like I'm here. So I was really trying to calm my nerves before the game and not let them get the best of me. So when I took the floor, I kind of was like, 'Is this real?' ...

"I had to just realize it was another game and play it like that and be Diamond. In the first half, I wasn't Diamond. In the second half, I found myself again, went back to my old self and things started happening."

There was nothing fancy about how North Carolina erased what grew to an 18-point deficit with little more than 10 minutes to play. It was blunt instrument basketball, offensive rebounds, tempo and smothering defensive pressure fueling a 28-8 run to close the game. DeShields made only three shots in the game, but two of them were of the sort that she and few other players can make. She also drew the most important, and controversial, call of the game when UT Martin's Tiara Caldwell was called for a flagrant foul after officials reviewed an elbow that caught DeShields as she entered the lane to try to  rebound a free throw attempt. DeShields' free throws essentially made it a four-point possession for the Tar Heels and came near the start of a 15-0 mini-run for her team.

This might just be North Carolina coach Andrew Calder's lot in life. He said there was no clue beforehand that the Tar Heels were anything other than ready for the moment. But as in losses in the regular season against the likes of Virginia Tech and Miami, they came out with something less than the energy and focus they brought to stages like a pair of wins against Duke, or wins against Maryland in the ACC tournament and South Carolina on a neutral court. McDaniel after the game said they don't know why the start slowly sometimes. They just do. That doesn't work in March.

"I think they learned a lot today," Calder said. "The whole team learned a lot today. That we can come back when we're down but that we have to continue to do the fundamental things so that we don't get ourselves in that position."

The need to learn the latter lesson quickly because North Carolina relies as much on youth as any team in the country and needs a sharper performance Tuesday. Still, it isn't entirely alone with its youth movement. The quartet of DeShields, Gray, Mavunga and Jessica Washington accounted for 59 percent of their team's scoring this season entering the game against UT Martin. But Michigan State's trio of Branndais Agee, Tori Jankoska and Aerial Powers accounted for 43 percent of the Spartans' points en route to a share of the Big Ten title.

Those three were responsible for 52 percent of the points the Spartans scored against Hampton, led by the 26 points Powers paired with 18 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in the day's most impressive individual performance.

"They're special players," Merchant said. "Tori is a high-IQ kid that can shoot 3s, pull up, pass it, drive it. She's got a pretty complete game. And Aerial and Brandais are both really athletic kids that I think have really grown and matured in the department of understanding and reading defenses better. They were kind of all-or-nothing kids sometimes early in the season."

In the case of Powers, her explosiveness and versatility adds an element otherwise missing for the Spartans, tools she showed off Sunday in everything from attacking the glass to spotting up for 3-pointers to bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense on occasion. A game against Hampton, among the NCAA leaders in turnovers forced, could have been trouble. And with a travel and a charge to her name before the game was even three minutes old, she looked a little overeager. After all, Powers scored 24 points against Dayton in November in her third college game but also committed nine turnovers in that game -- then seven more against Temple, six in a loss against IPFW, nine at Florida State and so on.

"Even in the preseason, I was so anxious to play," Powers said "That first game back, I was so anxious and I was all over the place and I was hyper. The game didn't come to me as easy because I was so excited, I had to calm down and play within myself. That's what I tried to do from the beginning of the season until now."

It worked Sunday on a big stage, the early miscues no more than an afterthought by the time she finished dismantling Hampton.

As a redshirt freshman, she is one of the elder stateswomen of this season's rookies, but she didn't play at all last season because of a torn Achilles tendon and missed the playoffs in high school because of an ankle injury as a senior. In other words, this was her first true postseason, win-or-go-home game since 2011, her junior year in high school.

"My mindset was come back bigger, better and stronger and actually focus on getting better with whatever I wasn't good at before I got hurt," Powers said. "So I just used it as a motivational thing, not as something to discourage me and worry about myself. I just motivated myself to get in the weight room and do things I wasn't good at before."

The result is one of the best rookies in college basketball, which is what you expect to find in Chapel Hill.

There is plenty of history in Carmichael. Tuesday it hosts the future.

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23030381. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23030381. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23030381. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23030381. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23030381.
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...