North Carolina has returned to the national polls and is making tracks toward its customary place in women's basketball.
The journey wasn't possible without the Tar Heels first escaping the trainer's room.
Their hard-earned health is reflected by a 7-0 record and No. 22 ranking heading into Sunday's (Tipoff: 1 p.m., TV: MyVLT, FSS) game against No. 16 Tennessee (5-1) at Thompson-Boling Arena. Sylvia Hatchell, who's in her 38th season as North Carolina's coach, feels good enough these days to jokingly suggest that there's a fountain of youth out there after all.
"I feel like I'm 25," she said, "until I walk by the mirror."
The season to date certainly isn't mirroring last season's injury-ravaged campaign, when the Tar Heels finished 20-11 and out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000-01. Under the circumstances, Hatchell thought it was a "miracle" that the team won 20 games.
"We had more injuries in one year than we had in the last 10 years total," she said. "There's nothing you can do about it."
Starting guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt was out until Jan. 5 after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
Reserves Megan Buckland and Latifah Coleman both went down within the first nine games with torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments.
Departed senior Laura Broomfield missed nine games with feet and ankle problems.
While Waltiea Rolle wasn't hurt, the Tar Heels' 6-foot-6 starting center missed the first 10 games after having a baby girl.
Hatchell said that she was down to six players at one point.
"I felt like (we were) the Israelites going through the desert," she said.
Hatchell thought that
the carryover effect was North Carolina not appearing in the Associated Press' preseason top 25 for the first time since 2001.
"I said two things when we started," Hatchell said. "First of all, we're underrated. Second, we're going to be a hard team to play against."
She'd get no argument from Tennessee.
"What they want to do is try to make you play fast,'' UT assistant coach Jolette Law said. "They want to create probably a 40-minute game of chaos."
Lady Vols junior guard Meighan Simmons seems intrigued by the prospects of a game without speed limits.
"I've been waiting for us to play a team that actually gets out and runs," she said. "That's something that's going to test us to see where our mentality is."
While Hatchell said that the Tar Heels have had at least 100 possessions in each of their games, the fast pace hasn't translated into huge scoring. Instead, they're winning with defense, holding the opposition to 54.3 points and 31 percent shooting. A 57-54 victory over No. 15 Ohio State on Wednesday was just their second win in eight years when scoring less than 60 points.
Rebounding also has been instrumental with North Carolina's margin a robust plus-9.1.
Finally, the Tar Heels are winning in spite of turnovers. They had 35 against Georgetown on Nov. 14 and still won, 63-48.
"The team that wins the war on the boards and (has) the fewest turnovers, they'll win the game," Law said.
Today's meeting is the first between the two schools in five years. Hatchell initially wanted to drop the game for a year in an effort to rebalance North Carolina's non-conference schedule. The Tar Heels were playing both Tennessee and Connecticut in the same home-and-away cycle. Tennessee then didn't have room for the Tar Heels to return.
Hatchell said that the two teams will play in Chapel Hill, N.C., on the first Sunday of next season, which will serve as an early showcase for two of the nation's top freshman classes.
In the meantime, the series is back today in rousing fashion — much like North Carolina.