With Hatchell's 1,000th win in hand, UNC continues to focus on getting back to postseason

Hatchell picks up 1,000th win (0:37)

Sylvia Hatchell joins Geno Auriemma with 1,000 wins as North Carolina downs Grambling 79-63. (0:37)

"Ultracompetitive" is the term that's used frequently to describe North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, who won her 1,000th game Tuesday.

But two other words always come to mind: resilient and relentless. You could say that all three generally go together in high achievers, but the latter two are so much a part of Hatchell's story.

And those qualities are why it appears that the Tar Heels are "back" after two years of missing the NCAA tournament.

North Carolina is 10-2 this season following Tuesday's 79-63 victory over Grambling State in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was a historic day for Hatchell and the program, but it was a fairly routine performance for this year's team, which has won eight games in a row.

The 2017-18 Tar Heels are a guard-heavy squad, but that's generally what Hatchell has always liked. Her philosophy has been that she can live with turnovers as long as her team wears down opposing defenses by winning time of possession.

Hatchell's teams have almost always been about trying to run foes into the ground, and a lot of the time, it has worked. But the past few years have been difficult in a lot of ways for Hatchell and the program.

Hatchell had to be off the sidelines for 2013-14, as she battled leukemia. North Carolina went to the Elite Eight that season, losing to Stanford on the Cardinal's home court in the regional final. Then in 2015, with Hatchell back on the bench, the Tar Heels nearly knocked off South Carolina in the Sweet 16 in Greensboro, North Carolina, but the Gamecocks held on.

And then, by the start of the 2015-16 season, each of the "fab four" recruits who had committed at the same time to North Carolina -- Diamond DeShields, Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington -- had transferred.

DeShields played two seasons at Tennessee and is now playing professionally overseas, bypassing her last year of eligibility before entering next April's WNBA draft. Gray went to South Carolina, played a key role in the Gamecocks' NCAA championship season, and then bypassed her last year of eligibility to enter the 2017 draft. She was WNBA Rookie of the Year with the Dallas Wings this season.

Mavunga went to Ohio State, where she's currently averaging a double-double. Washington transferred to Kansas and was the Jayhawks' leading scorer last season, but she suffered a knee injury this fall and is sitting out this season.

These were all four very talented players who Hatchell thought, in the summer of 2013, could help her challenge for a NCAA title over the next four years. But then she got the cancer diagnosis. And not only did four players transfer, but the program was under a cloud of potential punishment for the academic issues that the North Carolina athletic department was investigated for during a multiyear period of continual back-and-forth with the NCAA.

Hatchell, who will turn 66 in February, might have had enough after battling cancer, dealing with an interminable NCAA probe and facing the new "era" of mass transfers in women's college hoops.

She already had NCAA, AIAW and NAIA titles. She has a busy life off the court. She has her husband and fellow coach, Sammy Hatchell, her adult son, Van, and lots of friends. She has a passion for raising funds for UNC's Lineberger Cancer Center, which she credits with saving her life.

She could have said, "Enough. I'm done coaching."

But that thought never crossed her mind. If you know Hatchell, if you've watched her all these years at UNC -- and for some, all the way back to her Francis Marion days -- you knew she wanted nothing more than to get her program back to where it usually is: In contention in the ACC and nationally.

Hatchell stuck it out, and so did the players who either opted not to transfer or decided to come to North Carolina despite the negative publicity the athletic department was getting.

No. 1 on the list for loyalty to the Tar Heels: senior guard Jamie Cherry. As a freshman in 2015, she hit the big 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave the Tar Heels a victory over then-fellow freshman Kelsey Mitchell and Ohio State in the NCAA tournament's second round.

When Gray, Mavunga and Washington transferred after that season, Cherry could have gone, too. But the North Carolina native stayed put. She averaged 13.6 PPG in 2015-16, when the Tar Heels went 14-18, and 14.9 PPG last year, when they were 15-16.

Now, Cherry is averaging a career-best 16.7 points, second on the team to junior guard Paris Kea at 20.5.

Kea is from Tarboro, North Carolina, about 100 miles east of Chapel Hill. But she chose to go away to Vanderbilt, and then left there after her freshman season to return to North Carolina and join the Tar Heels. Kea sat out 2015-16, then led North Carolina last year in scoring (17.2) and assists (4.1).

Kea and Cherry have been the stalwarts for the Tar Heels thus far, especially since juniors Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker have been sidelined with injuries.

Freshman center Janelle Bailey (14.7 PPG) has had to learn on the fly, and sophomore guard Taylor Koenen (10.7 PPG) has stepped into a bigger role than last year. Both of them are averaging double-figures scoring, plus they lead North Carolina in rebounding. Koenen is at 8.1 per game and Bailey at 7.7.

North Carolina lost its season opener to Hampton on Nov. 10, and also lost 85-84 a little over a week later to South Alabama on Nov. 19, as the Jaguars hit 13 3-pointers.

"We gotta learn from it and move on," Hatchell said after that frustrating loss. "We have a lot of games in front of us."

They have not lost since. After one more nonconference game, against Mercer on Dec. 28, the Tar Heels start the ACC season at Florida State on Dec. 31. They have a chance to make some noise in their conference and get back to where North Carolina is used to being: in the postseason.

So Tuesday was a historic day for Hatchell and the program. But it was just another step along the way for the 2017-18 Tar Heels to regain their status. It has taken a resilient and relentless coach and her staff and some key players all not giving up and not getting beaten down to do this.

It's possible that when Hatchell on day reflects on win No. 1,000, what she'll remember is this: "That came in the season we got back to really being ourselves."