Departing Smith leaves hole on Heels' bench

Staff WriterJuly 5, 2011 

North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell said she is going to miss assistant Charlotte Smith, who recently became Elon's head coach.

Smith served as a bridge between the UNC coaching staff and its players. As a former player, she connected to players on a level others couldn't, having excelled with the Tar Heels and as a professional player in the WNBA.

Smith, who was a four-year starter for the Heels from 1992 to 1995, was the ACC freshman of the year in 1992. She then went on to hit the winning 3-point shot in the 1994 national championship game - helping the program to its only national title.

That shot turned the Shelby native into a women's basketball celebrity. She scored 2,094 career points (fourth all-time at UNC) and grabbed 1,200 rebounds (second all-time at UNC). Her No. 23 jersey was retired on Feb. 24, 1996.

Smith naturally commanded respect from players for what she had accomplished.

"She'd been there and done that," Hatchell said. "She could say, 'You might not understand, but just do it because it is what's best for you. It's going to payoff for you in the long run.' "

Smith, 37, became Elon's sixth coach. After waiting for what she called the "right opportunity," Smith made her move with encouragement from her former coach. She accepted the new position after a short deliberation.

"I knew when I stepped on that campus after having visited with the people that that was the place for me," Smith said. "I left there with such a great sense of people about it."

Vacancy to fill

Smith's departure leaves an empty seat on UNC's bench, one Hatchell said she would like to fill with one of her former players, a tradition she started with former UNC center Sylvia Crawley, who held the position before Smith took over in 2002.

Crawley, who also played professionally, moved on to become a head coach and now leads Boston College's program.

"I want to use that position for former players who want to go into coaching and are great for the game," said Hatchell, who said the school must now open the position and start the hiring process. There is no deadline for making a hire, she said.

"I have a plan. I know what I want to do," Hatchell added. "My phone's been blowing up. People calling me, people interested in the job. ... I've had to tell several they were overqualified."

Team in transition

This change on the UNC coaching staff comes at a turning point in the program's history. The team will be making the transition from recent years when players such as Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins, Camille Little, Rashanda McCants and LaToya Pringle were lifting the team to Final Fours.

Last season, seniors Jessica Breland, Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid were the only Tar Heels who had advanced beyond the NCAA tournament's regional round.

Next season, the Heels will be led by seniors Chay Shegog and She'la White and junior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.

Ruffin-Pratt, however, may miss six months recovering from a shoulder surgery. Hatchell said the staff is discussing whether the 5-foot-10 forward should undergo surgery to repair her chronically injured right shoulder, a procedure she avoided last season as the medical staff opted for rehabilitation treatment.

Inside the paint, the Heels lose 6-6 junior Waltiea Rolle, who will redshirt this season.

Hatchell said the staff decided that Rolle and Shegog were not compatible inside and playing both in the same season could yield negative results for both. She said the move should help Rolle, who last season led the ACC in blocks, mature as a post player.

Young talent

The Heels may find themselves in a tough position as conference play starts - with Duke, Miami and Maryland fielding young, talented squads.

The Blue Devils, who brought in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class last season, have added marquee freshmen Elizabeth Williams and Amber Henson.

The Heels, while not fielding a top 10 recruiting class, bring in Megan Buckland, Danielle Butts, Brittany Rountree and Whitney Adams.

"We've got some sleepers coming out that may not have been ranked top 10 in the country, but they're going to be able to hold their own," Hatchell said.

Hatchell also is building for the future, having secured verbal commitments from Millbrook sophomore twin forwards Bria and Briana Day, as well as from West Craven freshman point guard Jamie Cherry.

"We will be competitive," Hatchell said of the coming season. "We will be young. We're going to be really young this year. Is there a question mark? Oh, yeah, there's no doubt about it."

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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