UNC women get fresh opportunity

Tar Heels welcome back Breland, who battled cancer last season

Staff WriterOctober 20, 2010 

— It never happened.

That's the mindset of North Carolina's women's basketball players as they try to put last season behind them in preparation for the 2010-11 season.

The Tar Heels want to forget the miserable season where they started out 15-1 but finished with a 19-12 overall record and 6-8 in the ACC. They were knocked out of the first round of the ACC tournament and earned the program's lowest seed - 10th - in the NCAA tournament.

Players grimaced as they spoke about last season during UNC's media day on Tuesday.

"For some we would like to put it totally out of our minds," North Carolina senior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. "I don't think I've ever had a season like that - ever. So you don't want to talk about that. I think that's what we did last year. We were thinking about what was going on when the year was going on instead of what happened before."

This year the Heels can look to senior Jessica Breland for a reminder of the team's successful past. The 6-foot-3 forward returns after sitting out last season while recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The Kelford native, who endured chemotherapy before returning to the court in February, said she's healthy and her cancer remains in remission.

Breland said she sometimes has trouble breathing while playing due to complications with her lungs, which were damaged by cancer treatments. She said her troubles also stem from the Heels' tough running requirements.

"I'm feeling OK because some of the girls get winded, too," she said with a laugh.

Losing mobility and quickness, Breland said she has worked back into solid basketball shape, her mid-range jump shot still reliable. She will look to regain the form that earned her the ACC's 2008 sixth man of the year award and spot on the 2009 all-defensive team.

Breland's return has the entire team smiling, especially coach Sylvia Hatchell. She said the forward's presence "makes a major difference."

The Heels struggled midway through last season. Facing stiffer competition, they shot poorly, finishing with a mark of 41.3 percent from the field.

They had a five-game losing streak and lost nine of 12 games to close the season.

Their difficulties exposed a lack of player leadership.

"When we lost, everybody was going by themselves," DeGraffenreid said. "They were staying away because nobody wanted to think about what was going on on the court. Everybody was trying to just get away instead of coming together."

Breland, who received a medical redshirt, observed from the bench and decided to fill a void.

"I knew that the main thing we were lacking last year was leadership," she said. "I felt like no one stepped up or felt like they could step up and lead the team. I felt like I was the perfect person to do that."

This summer she directed player-only practices and, along with assistant coach Andrew Calder, devised a contract for players that mandated individual shooting practices.

There were pick-up games and private practices. Players were also required to take a number of shots - say 500 - during the week to help improve the team's woeful shooting from last season.

Team members understood the consequences - more shooting, study hall or a meeting with Hatchell - and coalesced around Breland's plan.

For the first time in program history, the Heels have three seniors who have scored 1,000 or more career points: Breland, DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas, the team's leading returning scorer.

Breland and Lucas have been named to the preseason top 30 list for the John R. Wooden Award, which given to the nation's top player.

With two players transferring from a top-ranked freshman class, the Heels return three sophomores and three juniors.

"We're better than what people think we're going to be," Hatchell said. "Last year, we were picked [ACC] preseason No. 1, we're a better team now than we were last year. We're a lot better. This team could go a long way."

But it must strike last year from its memory.

"It's a fresh start," UNC sophomore Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said. "It's a new season, new team. So we're really not worried about last year."

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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