Head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s intensity, havoc-inducing style and play calling haven’t changed much. Assistant coaches Andrew Calder and Tracy Williams-Johnson are still on the sidelines, reinforcing Hatchell’s message and fine-tuning important but often overlooked nuances in the Tar Heels’ system.
Latta isn’t dribbling, dropping off assists to teammates or hitting step-back jumpers anymore, though. Instead of a ball in her hand, she’s got a whistle and a clipboard.
No longer a player in the program she elevated to national prominence, she’s on the other side – an assistant coach – on the same bench where she once was an All-American.
“It’s so funny, because Coach Hatchell is putting in different plays and it’s similar to the plays we ran,” Latta told Inside Carolina. “I’m doing the play in my head, and then I realize she’s added more to it. It’s kind of cool. Sometimes when she says things, I know exactly what she’s going to say because I’ve heard it like 1,000 times. But the girls have no idea.”
Latta, who joined the staff on July 12, replaced Trisha Stafford-Odom. She’s Carolina’s all-time leading scorer with 2,285 career points and earned All-America honors her final three seasons, including consensus accolades in 2006 and 2007.
“The first couple of days of practice were real different for me,” she said. “The whole thing about coaching, going to your desk at a certain time, then to practice, then back to your desk, it’s just very different. I’m used to going to the gym practicing for a few hours and leaving. Here there’s other things to do, recruiting things, doing shooting groups at a certain time, workouts, a lot of stuff.”
What hasn’t changed, according to Latta, is the energy she brings to practice and the trademark smile that made her a fan favorite in Chapel Hill.
“Oh, you know me,” she said. “I’m definitely still energetic out there. But the first few practices I tried to learn the girls, keep my cool and learn their tendencies. It’s actually been pretty good. They’re working hard every single day and getting better. I went around and told them last week that they’re making my job easier.”
The job of everyone associated with UNC athletics got infinitely more difficult when the University announced that Hatchell, a Naismith Hall of Famer, was taking a temporary leave after being diagnosed with leukemia.
The news struck Latta particularly hard. Point guards and coaches have a unique bond, one that first developed between the two South Carolina natives more than 10 years ago.
“This has been beyond hard for me to take,” explained Latta. “She had a great attitude about it (when she told the team) and everybody knew she wasn’t going to let it beat her. In all my years at Carolina, I’ve never seen her sick, and to see her like that just really hurt. Seeing how tough she is made me realize where I got my toughness from.“
While it’s been tough, and at times impossible, to think of basketball during Hatchell’s absence, Latta and the rest of the UNC staff are pushing forward.
“My job is to pretty much be there for the girls,” said Latta. “Give them my thoughts and tell them what it takes to win an ACC championship. I want to show them how to get wins for the University, but also how to be a great person on and off the court. I take on a lot of roles out there.”
Recruiting is one of those roles. Having a former All-American, ESPN.com National College Player of the Year and WNBA All-Star on the bench is a distinct advantage for UNC. It’s one Latta plans to use to the Tar Heels’ benefit.
“I was able to do a little bit of recruiting this summer,” Latta said. “I tried to do what I can to give the girls some guidance, words of encouragement, wisdom about UNC and details about my experiences when I was there. I’m still getting used to the process and there are a lot of rules.”
“I hope what I’ve done will help,” she continued. “We want the top players to come to the school. The University of North Carolina is one of the top schools in academics and athletics, so it’s easy to talk to recruits about it. “
UNC’s 2013 recruiting class comprised four of the top 20 players in the country, including Diamond DeShields, the WBCA and Naismith Prep Player of the Year in 2013. Latta’s been impressed with what she’s seen from the freshman class so far.
“The game has changed so much,” she said. “Everyone is so tall. When I was in school everyone was my height. Not anymore, not these girls. They are definitely a joy to coach. As a freshman you try to take everything in. You have to stay focused on getting everything down pat. They work hard every single day at practice and I’m so proud of them. They’ve honed in on what coach wants them to do and are always ready to get better.”
UNC opens its season in Carmichael Auditorium on Nov. 8 against Air Force. Latta expects big things from DeShields.
“She’s the type of player that coaches dream of,” said Latta. “She gets it. You only have to tell her something once. She comes in early to get her shots up and things like that. I’m looking forward to her having a great season.”
Hatchell recruited Latta out of York (S.C.) Comprehensive High School. In 2003, she was named the Morgan Wootten National Girls High School Basketball Player of the Year. In four seasons at UNC, she led the Tar Heels to a 121-17 overall record and two Final Fours.
“For the most part I’m satisfied with my career,” Latta said. “I didn’t win a national championship and that still haunts me, but looking back on all the great things, I can’t complain. I had a great career, but I could’ve done better. We got there two times and it slipped out of my hands.”
It was in those stellar seasons that Hatchell first put the bug in Latta’s ear about coaching. During practices Hatchell would make subtle, but pointed, comments about Latta’s teaching ability, energy and positivity.
“She always told me that one day an opportunity may present itself,” Latta said. “I never really thought about it because I was in the WNBA and playing overseas the rest of the year.”
Earlier this year, Hatchell called Latta and told her the time had come.
“Will you think about it?” she asked Latta.
After another season overseas and in the WNBA, and lots of talks with her parents, Latta accepted.
“It was an easy process to be honest with you,” she said. “Carolina is my second home and I had the best four years of my life here. It’s good to be home.”
Photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications