Returns by Hatchell, OSU headline NCAA Chapel Hill regional
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina's Hall of Fame coach is back in the NCAA Tournament.
So is Ohio State's team.
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels and fifth-seeded Buckeyes will be favorites to win their tournament openers Saturday.
North Carolina (24-8) faces 13th-seeded Liberty (26-6) and Ohio State (23-10) takes on 12th-seeded James Madison (29-3) in the first round of the Greensboro Region.
All eyes will be on North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who returns to the sideline of her sport's biggest event after missing last season battling leukemia.
Hatchell said Friday, ''Trust me, I don't take it for granted.
''Not one bit,'' she added. ''I've been smiling for the last five or six months, I guess. Everything that I do, you would think it would be old to me, but no. It's special.''
Hatchell could not attend her team's NCAA tournament games last season even though the Tar Heels hosted the first two rounds.
At this time last year, she had just finished her final round of treatment and was at her self-described ''weakest point.''
''This was the down time,'' Hatchell said. ''I wasn't even able to come over because I couldn't be around any germs because I had no immune system at all. They were just a few miles away, and I couldn't even come watch them.''
The Tar Heels persevered, reaching the Elite Eight before losing to Stanford.
They have battled through a different kind of adversity this season, earning their 13th NCAA tournament berth in the past 14 years despite losing starting forward Xylina McDaniel to a season-ending leg injury in December.
Ohio State has dealt with personnel losses of its own. Injuries have left the Buckeyes with eight active players, including three freshman starters.
But behind NCAA scoring leader Kesley Mitchell, Ohio State earned its first berth in the tournament since 2012.
''Everybody was excited but realized that there was a lot more that we want to do,'' Ohio State guard Cait Craft said. ''That doesn't have to be the highest point that we reach this season.''
Some things to know about the first-round games in Chapel Hill:
STATUES OF LIBERTY: Liberty has grabbed more rebounds and scored more points inside than its opponents in 21 consecutive games. It's no coincidence that the Flames won 20 of those games, including the last 14 in a row. Liberty starts 6-5 Katelyn Adams and 6-4 Ashley Rininger up front, and has 6-6 Catherine Kearney and 6-2 Jasmine Gardner available off the bench.
DYNAMIC DUO: Ohio State's Mitchell and fellow guard Ameryst Alston are the highest-scoring duo in the country. Mitchell averages 25.0 points per game, and Alston scores 19.3 points per game. ''In my opinion, we have the best backcourt in the country,'' Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said.
3 OF A KIND: Mitchell has made at least one 3-pointer in all 33 of Ohio State's games this season, one shy of the NCAA single-season record for consecutive games with a 3. She has made at least three 3-pointers in each of the Buckeyes' last 10 games.
IMPRESSIVE WIN: James Madison's 80-64 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 23 is a sign that the Dukes are capable of winning this weekend. North Carolina lost at Pittsburgh 84-59, its most lopsided defeat of the season, and Ohio State lost at home to the Panthers 78-74.
TOURNEY TRADITION: Liberty and James Madison have combined for as many NCAA Tournament appearances (five) as North Carolina and Ohio State over the last four years. The Flames got into the tournament for the 16th time in 19 seasons, and the Dukes earned a spot for the fourth time in the last six years. ''It's become a tradition,'' Liberty coach Carey Green said. ''Last year when it didn't happen, we were miserable for about a year.''