CHAPEL HILL — Part of becoming a senior leader on a basketball team is learning how to address your teammates respectfully but honestly.
North Carolina seniors Jessica Breland, Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid frequently applied that concept over the summer as they prepared for the 2010-11 women's basketball season.
The senior trio form the nucleus of a Tar Heels team seeking to rebound from a difficult season a year ago where they finished with a 19-12 record and were knocked out of the first rounds of the ACC and NCAA tournaments. They are the first senior group in program history to have each scored more than 1,000 points and all three were named by the Atlanta Tipoff Club this week to the preseason Naismith award watch list for the nation's top player.
Entering their season-opener on Friday against North Florida, the No.15-ranked Heels have taken their cues from the seniors, with Breland the chief vocal organizer as she returns to the court after sitting out while recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma.
In team-only meetings this summer, the seniors posed challenges to a group that wants to reclaim its place on the national stage and return to the Final Four for the first time since 2006-07.
"You can't lie to yourself," Breland said. "Are you doing what it takes to get there?"
Each player had to answer that question, reminded of last season's disappointment. Led by guards Lucas and DeGraffenreid, the Heels underachieved while trying to blend the talents of six freshmen - the nation's top recruiting class.
Out of that class, two freshmen have transferred - forwards Nyree Williams and Cierra Robertson-Warren. Returning are guards Krista Gross, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Candace Wood, and center Waltiea Rolle.
They join juniors Chay Shegog, a returning starter at center, and forward Laura Broomfield along with backup guard She'la White.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said the missing element last season was Breland, a 6-foot-3 forward who averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game as a junior.
"We're a lot better," Hatchell said. "These kids have stayed here all summer and worked their behinds off."
Players like Gross improved their shooting accuracy, with the Heels making 41.3 percent from the floor last season. Others like Ruffin-Pratt dropped weight and healed injuries. She lost 15 pounds and rehabilitated her shoulders, no longer wearing cumbersome braces on both arms.
Gross said the senior's experience impacted the team.
"You could see the stuff they knew from being here so long has helped guide our pickup [games]."
She said the seniors complement each other, with the more talkative Breland correcting on the spot, while reserved Lucas provides quick reminders and quiet DeGraffenreid explains concepts in detail off the court. They've all been hands-on in helping teammates find their place.
The team's sense of urgency stems from Breland, Lucas and DeGraffenreid, who were members of past UNC teams that thrived on intensity.
DeGraffenreid enrolled in 2007 and became the starting point guard on a team that featured Erlana Larkins and LaToya Pringle. The Heels had reached the Final Four during the two previous seasons, and the seniors were hardly understanding of lackluster effort.
"Not at all," DeGraffenreid said. "If that happened, they were quick to show you this is what you need."
Those seniors realized that their time in the program was short.
DeGraffenreid recalled an incident when usually reserved Pringle erupted after Hatchell kicked the team out of practice. The Heels had lost to Tennessee and Connecticut and were not sharp.
"[Pringle] just went off saying she wasn't going to go out this way. That we needed to focus," DeGraffenreid said. "That was the first time I'd ever really heard her say anything. We were all like this is serious business."
DeGraffenreid has been asked to better communicate with teammates throughout her time in the program. While speaking up more, she's also trying to take the Larkins' model to heart, saying, "[Larkins] was a workhorse. She did everything."
Breland was a member of the 2006-07 team that reached the Final Four in Cleveland, Ohio, and fell to Tennessee 56-50.
She draws from that team's physical and mental preparation, though translating that experience into words for teammates sometimes proves difficult.
"There's no words that can explain. I know the path in my mind," Breland said. "Just follow me. Let me be your eyes."
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