Today, North Carolina enters the first round of the ACC women's basketball tournament - a tournament the program has won nine times - as an afterthought, seeded sixth and reeling after four consecutive regular-season losses.
Jessica Breland, one of the team's four seniors and appointed leader, would have never imagined the Tar Heels (22-7, 8-6 ACC) would be in this spot, particularly after starting the season with a 14-0 record.
Breland, who as a freshman watched the Heels reach the Final Four, also never imagined that her game would take such a precipitous turn and she would lose her starting job. As the Heels prepare to face No. 11 Clemson (10-19, 3-11) at the Greensboro Coliseum, she looks to rebound from a mini-slump that has perplexed coaches and shaken her confidence.
"Tournament time always brings a sense of urgency," said Breland, who over the past four games has averaged 6.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 turnovers. "You lose, you're out. ... We all have the same goal: We don't want to go home."
This season was supposed to go differently for Breland, who returned for a redshirt fifth season after sitting out last season while recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma. After undergoing chemotherapy and rebuilding her endurance, she entered this season healthy and hopeful to regain the form that lifted her to a team-leading 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a junior.
She's had breakout games this season, scoring 22 points against Florida State on Feb. 2. But there have been setbacks along the way as she battled pneumonia in January and minor knee surgery last month.
"It's not related to health," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "She had a great game at Florida State. ... We haven't seen anything like that since Florida State. And we won down there, mainly because of how she played. I'm not blaming Jessica. We're counting on her, and we need her."
Breland said she's trying to balance scoring and passing.
"I've never really been a player people went to," Breland said. "So when Erlana [Larkins] and [LaToya Pringle] and all of them were there, I always played a role. It's hard to put in my mind to attack more. That I have the green light."
The Heel have tried running plays for Breland and are searching for ways to revive her mid-range face-the-basket game.
"We have to get her playing better, or I just have to sit her down," Hatchell said. "We're trying to do some things to get her going. I think if we can get Jessica going, this team will take off."
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