UNC looks young

Staff WriterNovember 5, 2009 

— For tonight's exhibition game against Francis Marion, the North Carolina women's basketball team will feature a roster brimming with young talent. But with youth comes inexperience, and the No. 5 Tar Heels are bracing for the possibility of a season without senior forward Jessica Breland, a 6-foot-3 preseason All-America candidate.

Breland, the team's top returning scorer, was diagnosed this summer with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system. Hatchell said Wednesday that Breland's cancer has gone into remission and that she has completed chemotherapy.

Breland is in better spirits, but Hatchell said she was uncertain about Breland's possible return date. Breland has yet to practice or lift weights with the team, though she has shot baskets in practice.

"If I had to make a decision right now, we'd redshirt her," Hatchell said. "A month from now, the doctors may say she's good to go. I doubt that. ... If she can play, that will be a pleasant surprise. I'm moving along as if she's not going to play."

Breland, who has dropped weight from her thin frame, casually dribbled and took jump shots during the team's media day Wednesday. Mostly though, she sat on the side and swapped giggles with teammates and staff.

Hatchell said before a decision is made about Breland's playing status, doctors must administer tests and make a decision about her health.

"We're going to do what's best for Jessica. If they say she needs time to get back in shape, then we'll just go ahead and redshirt her."

Eight of UNC's 13 available players are underclassmen, including five freshmen who make up what many believe to be the second best 2009-10 recruiting class in the nation.

With all that youth, Hatchell must turn to junior guards Cetera DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas for leadership. Hatchell said every position, other than Lucas at shooting guard, is up for grabs, including that of two-year starter DeGraffenreid.

The 5-6 point guard, who averaged 11.9 points and 4.1 assists last season, is battling sophomore She'la White. White will start in Tuesday's exhibition against Carson-Newman.

"I think that's part of her reason is to make me go to a different level," DeGraffenreid said of Hatchell's decision. "She keeps stressing vocal, vocal, vocal. ... I'm trying. It's not really something I do, and I'm trying to get out of the box and do it."

In restocking a roster that lost senior Rashanda McCants, the Heels brought in 5-10 guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, 6-0 guard Krista Gross, 6-1 forward Nyree Williams, 6-4 forward Cierra Robertson-Warren and 6-7 center Waltiea Rolle.

Ruffin-Pratt, who has a strong chance to start, was voted preseason ACC rookie of the year.

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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