North Carolina women's hoops coach Sylvia Hatchell is one victory away from 900 in her career. And guess which team she'll face Sunday to try to hit that milestone? Think … darker blue. Pitchfork. The school that calls its smallish gym a "stadium." The bad guys up the road.
You got it. On Sunday (ESPNU, 1 p.m. ET), North Carolina faces Duke at the Tar Heels' Carmichael Arena with more at stake than just the perpetual grudge match between neighboring archrivals.
Hatchell's Tar Heels beat Florida State 72-62 on Thursday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., putting her on the brink of 900. She's one of two coaches closing in on that accomplishment; Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer is three wins from 900 after the Scarlet Knights' 72-54 victory over Marquette on Wednesday.
The earliest that Stringer could hit 900 is Feb. 12 at DePaul -- she faces Villanova on Saturday and Cincinnati on Feb. 9 -- so Hatchell probably will get there first. But will she do it this weekend against UNC's most despised foe?
While Sunday's game in Chapel Hill could be historically significant, it also almost surely will be important in the ACC race. Duke, which clobbered Miami 82-43 on Thursday, is atop the league at 9-0. UNC and Maryland are tied for second at 8-1. The Tar Heels and Terrapins already have played twice, splitting those meetings. But Duke still has to play North Carolina and Maryland twice each.
Rest assured, there is no love lost between Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie's program and Hatchell's. Just being Duke-Carolina ramps up the animosity meter enough; add to it that Hatchell hired assistant coach Trisha Stafford-Odom away from Duke in 2011. The Tar Heels' recruiting has subsequently skyrocketed; they have talented freshmen such as forward Xylina McDaniel this season, and the nation's top-ranked class coming in for 2013-14.
Stafford-Odom switching sides is just another vignette of the Battle Royal of Tobacco Road. Of course, this is the school matchup that is at the very heart of the ACC; in fact, it's among a handful of rivalries that truly define college athletics.
In women's basketball, Duke and Carolina have had some epic clashes in their 83 meetings, dating back to 1976. Hatchell has been the Tar Heels' coach for 62 of those games, as she began at UNC in 1986.
North Carolina leads the series 47-36; Hatchell's personal record against Duke is 31-31. Her worst stretch came from 2000-04, when the Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels 12 times in a row.
Hatchell acknowledges she became obsessed with ending Duke's dominance, and reached out to several men's coaches for strategy advice. She picked their brains about how best to counter the Blue Devils, who were then coached by Gail Goestenkors.
"I said to myself, 'I'm gonna figure out a way to get this done,'" Hatchell said recently in recalling some of the challenges of her career. "We changed up a few things."
Then in January 2005, the Tar Heels did end the Duke streak. So the adjustments had worked? Well … yes. But it turned out the very best way for the Tar Heels to finally beat the Blue Devils again, Hatchell said with a chuckle, was for Duke All-American Alana Beard to graduate.
Carolina has had its superstars and corresponding periods of "owning" Duke, too, though. That was certainly the case at the beginning of the series (pre-Hatchell), as the Tar Heels won 15 of the first 16 meetings.
Under Hatchell, North Carolina has had three winning streaks of at least five in a row against the Blue Devils, including in 2005-06. In recent seasons, though, the ball has been more in Duke's court; the Blue Devils have won six of the past eight, including the past four in a row.
Last season, the Tar Heels finished with a 20-11 record but did not get an NCAA tournament bid. It was only the third time since 1992 that UNC wasn't in the Big Dance.
The Tar Heels' invitation this season seems fairly certain; Thursday's victory put them at the 20-win mark even before the end of January. But a victory against Duke would help come NCAA selection time.
And Duke being the foe also would help put a little extra icing on the 900 cake, if that's to be cut Sunday.