Press-and-run style means fun times for UNC, Hatchell

BOSTON -- Sylvia Hatchell and her North Carolina team come into this Final Four like the ambassadors of the hardwood. It's a team out to win a national championship and spread the message -- with every high-speed trip up and down the court -- that basketball is supposed to be fun and exciting and an adrenaline rush.

Some coaches come into the Final Four mildly tense. Some come in desperately trying not to sound tense. Some come in not even bothering to hide how tense they are.

Hatchell, meanwhile, sounds as if she's practically ready to burst into song on the set of a Broadway musical. On a teleconference the other day, she talked about seeing assistant coach Charlotte Smith-Taylor in her office before they left for Boston.

"I hugged her, and said, 'We're going back to the Final Four!' " Hatchell said. "She said, 'I've got all my pictures from then, and I'm taking them with me.' "

"Then," of course, was 1994, when Smith-Taylor hit the biggest shot in the history of the women's NCAA Tournament. Thing is, I don't recall Hatchell being nervous back then, either.

Hatchell is one of those relentless optimists, the kind who is convinced that the sun is going to be shining every day when they wake up. At least, that is the persona Hatchell puts forth publicly to the media, and I have no reason to think she isn't pretty much the same all the time.

You figure if she has a garden, she's saying, "Now, come on, tomatoes, I know ya'll can do this." And if the power goes out in her neighborhood, she probably says, "Oh, it will probably be back on in no time." And when she drives past the gas pump, she likely thinks, "I bet there's a good chance it will be cheaper tomorrow."

Of course, the other side to such a sunny side is that Hatchell can be oblivious -- or at least put on an Oscar-worthy performance of such -- to anyone being upset or irritated with her. Former Clemson coach Jim Davis sometimes wanted to pull out what remained of his hair in some of his battles with Hatchell that went largely unacknowledged by her (let's just say he thought Carolina sometimes operated in a "gray area" of recruiting that wasn't all that gray).

There have been various grumblings about Hatchell and North Carolina over the years by other coaches. She doesn't pay attention to it. But she does talk now about getting her love for basketball back -- although she never really lost it. Rather, she thinks she got caught up in too many committees and time commitments away from hoops.

In the last few years, though, Hatchell has streamlined a bit. Her mind is on hoops. After all this time in the game, she still thinks there are things for her to learn. She talks to whomever she can about strategy and decisions. She'll file all of it away mentally, then try to apply it to game-day coaching and practice.

"My relationship with my players is the best it's ever been -- I'm loving it and having a blast," Hatchell said. "And it's not just everything that's happened this year, but last year, too."

Last season, the Tar Heels made the Elite Eight but lost there to eventual national champion Baylor. Hatchell knew she had her core coming back and, true to form, didn't fret.

Hatchell says she didn't actually worry that she might never make another trip to the Final Four. A dozen years have passed, though, and here she is.

"What happened is, she and [assistant] Tracey Williams-Johnson have recruited the players that can play the style that [Hatchell] has always wanted to play," said Andrew Calder, who, in his 20th year, is the longest-tenured assistant to Hatchell. "Sometimes, you have to adjust to your players. Now she has people who can press and run.

"I think she's always had great passion for the game -- it's just a lot more fun, more exciting."

Maybe it would be hard not to smile if you were a coach with Ivory Latta running the point and players such as Erlana Larkins, Camille Little and Rashanda McCants dying to get the ball.

"I love my staff and my team, and we're going to have a good time and continue to play Carolina basketball," Hatchell said. "A lot of people are saying to me, 'You all look like you're having fun,' and we are. We try to smile and enjoy the experience that we're having."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.