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Competitive spirit still drives North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell on eve of 1,000th win

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Kea shines in UNC's win (0:55)

Paris Kea scores 33 points and UNC defeats Washington 90-78, handing head coach Sylvia Hatchell her 999th win. (0:55)

Washington Mystics guard Ivory Latta paused for a few seconds when asked for her favorite funny memory of playing for North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell.

"Oh, man, I'm gonna have to think about this a few minutes," she said. And then almost immediately, she continued, "I got it! I got it!

"When I was in school -- and she probably still does this -- the day before we played Duke, we listened to a one particular song in practice. And that song was, 'Let's get physical, physical ...'"

Latta, who played for the Tar Heels from 2003-07, laughed just thinking about it.

"And she would be on the sidelines, dancing," Latta continued. "We'd be stretching or something, and just looking at her like, 'What in the world?' But she'd be having herself a great time. She knew that every time we played Duke, it was going to be a really physical game. So we started getting in that mindset in practice."

It figures that Hatchell, who is now at 999 career victories after North Carolina won Sunday over Washington, would come up with an unforgettable way to remind her Tar Heels of what they needed to do in their most emotionally charged rivalry.

Hatchell can reach 1,000 wins Tuesday when North Carolina faces Grambling State in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It will seem fitting if she hits the mark in that state, because she started her head-coaching career in 1975 at Francis Marion College in Florence, South Carolina.

Hatchell was there for 11 seasons, winning two national championships. She then went to North Carolina in 1986 and won the 1994 NCAA title.

It would seem to defy any calculable odds that two Division I women's basketball coaches could get to 1,000 career wins on the same day, but that will happen if both North Carolina and UConn win Tuesday. The Huskies' Geno Auriemma is at 999 going into UConn's game against Oklahoma (the Huskies tip off at 7 p.m. ET; the Tar Heels play at 2 p.m. ET).

"They are legends of our game," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of Hatchell and Auriemma. "They have contributed so much. Especially to some of the younger coaches who are striving to be as good as they are at what they do."

Staley joked that she's been a "victim" of some of those UConn and North Carolina wins, both as a player at Virginia and a coach at Temple and South Carolina. But that puts her in good company. Both Hatchell and Auriemma have become iconic coaches with their programs.

"History says they stood the test of time when it comes to their leadership and inspiring student-athletes and coaches," Staley said.

Elon coach Charlotte Smith made the biggest shot in Tar Heel women's basketball history: the 3-point buzzer-beater that won the 1994 NCAA final. Smith was also an assistant at North Carolina for nine seasons, including while Latta was playing there.

"A number is meaningless. ... It's more about her love of the game and for people. I'm just proud of her heart and her passion for the game. It takes a lot of both to be in this business for that amount of time." Charlotte Smith, on what 1,000 wins means to Sylvia Hatchell

Smith chuckled recalling a story from her days on the UNC staff that shows how competitive Hatchell is.

"We had just played at Georgia Tech, and we stopped to eat at The Varsity. Coach just loves that place," Smith said of the famed fast-food restaurant in Atlanta. "We're sitting on the bus in the front seat; I'm right across from her. And without saying a word, we just looked at each other, like, 'When we get off this bus, we are racing each other to the front door.' She's always had that competitive spirit."

And the truth is Hatchell needed that more than anything for her biggest battle of all.

Life couldn't have looked better for Hatchell going into the fall of 2013. So many good things had happened for her that year: She got her 900th victory, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and had a stellar freshman class coming in that hoped to lead the Tar Heels back to the Final Four. They'd last been there in 2007, Latta's senior season.

But then Hatchell was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. As she wrote in her book, "Fight! Fight! Discovering Your Inner Strength When Blindsided By Life," Hatchell saw her typically busy whirlwind of activity suddenly hit a detour with the call from a doctor saying she had cancer.

"Whether I realized it at the time or not," Hatchell wrote, "Oct. 12, 2013, would mark the first day of fighting for my life."

Hatchell remained coach of the Tar Heels but had to spend that season mostly away from them. Longtime assistant Andrew Calder consulted with Hatchell but ran the team on the sideline.

North Carolina finished 27-10 that year -- those games are all included in Hatchell's record -- and made it to the 2014 Elite Eight before falling to Stanford.

"She never would put on hospital clothes. She refused to," Smith recalled of Hatchell's insistence on wearing athletic gear during her lengthy hospital stay. "We would walk together, and she was outpacing me in the walks she would take. The title of her book speaks to who she is. She's always been a fighter, and that's something she's instilled in all of us."

Latta was just starting as an assistant on North Carolina's staff then. She said Hatchell was the one who kept up everyone's spirits even while Hatchell was so sick.

"It reminded me of my freshman year at Carolina," Latta said. "I was small, and so I was getting thrown down to the floor all the time. I was thinking, 'Can I do this?'

"But I could always hear her say, 'Get up, Ivory. Don't you give up. Don't ever give up.' I pretty much have taken that with me every day of my life since, on and off the court. And it's how she is about her own problems, too."

Hatchell recovered and returned to the sideline for the 2014-15 season. The most highly touted of her blue-chip quartet, Diamond DeShields, had opted to transfer. But the Tar Heels still went 26-9 and nearly made the Elite Eight again, falling by two points to South Carolina in the regional semifinals.

But then, in the midst of what seemed a never-ending NCAA investigation into the North Carolina athletic department about academic fraud, the other three members of that great recruiting class -- Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington -- left after their sophomore year.

The past two seasons, the Tar Heels were 14-18 and 15-16, missing the NCAA tournament. That hadn't happened in back-to-back years at North Carolina since Hatchell began her career there, when she didn't make the postseason from 1987-88 through 1990-91.

In October, the NCAA finally concluded its investigation with no penalties. The Tar Heels, who brought back all five starters, are now 9-2, led by guards Paris Kea (21.1 PPG) and Jamie Cherry (16.2). Those two combined for 61 points Sunday in North Carolina's 90-78 victory against Washington.

Latta is not with the coaching staff anymore, but she is spending a lot of this winter in Chapel Hill. She plans to be in Myrtle Beach on Tuesday.

"I truly enjoyed playing for her; she brought the best out in me," Latta said. "Even now, whenever I have a big decision to make, I call my parents. They tell me what they think, and then say, 'OK, now call Coach Hatchell. See what she says.' She helped make me into the person I am today."

Smith, having both played for Hatchell and having been her colleague, got to know her as a true friend along with being a mentor. (By the way, Smith said of that footrace to the front door of the Varsity, "Oh, I let her win.") Smith said that everyone who has played for Hatchell will feel honored to be part of the 1,000.

"But at the end of the day, a number is meaningless to her," Smith said. "It's more about her love of the game and for people. I'm just proud of her heart and her passion for the game. It takes a lot of both to be in this business for that amount of time."