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The Tar Heels women are once again loaded. Can they win it all?

Knocking at the door

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The highest peaks of women's college basketball hold only a handful of schools and coaches. The unquestioned twin titans of the game are Pat Summitt and her University of Tennessee Volunteers and Geno Auriemma and his University of Connecticut Huskies.

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And then there is the UNC program run by Sylvia Hatchell. Her record in her 22 years in Chapel Hill is a sterling 512-195. In 1994, her team took the national championship when Charlotte Smith—now one of Hatchell's assistant coaches—dropped in a 25-foot buzzer beater.

That was 15 seasons ago, though, and many strong teams have come and gone in Chapel Hill. In the meantime, UConn and Tennessee have each won five national titles. Despite winning 30 or more games in each of the past four seasons while losing a total of 13 games over that span, Hatchell and the Heels have been unable to break Summitt and Auriemma's grip on the title.

Last year was a particular disappointment: A high-octane unit went undefeated in conference play and 33-3 overall, and scored 86.3 points a game, but failed to make the Final Four after running into an inspired Louisiana State University squad and its 6-foot-6 center, Sylvia Fowles.

And by the way, who were those two other non-conference losses to? Tennessee and UConn. (On Jan. 19, UConn comes to Chapel Hill for a nationally televised grudge match.)

At press time, UConn is ranked No. 1 and defending national champion Tennessee, rebuilding from the loss of superstar Candace Parker and an early-season defeat at the hands of Virginia, is on the margins of the top 10 in what is surely a temporary exile. Once again, this year's Tar Heels squad is up near the top, ranked No. 2 with a 8-0 record, including an 80-79 win over then-No. 2 Oklahoma for the preseason Women's National Invitational Tournament title.

The Tar Heels' early ranking comes in spite of two major losses to graduation: the frontcourt stalwarts Erlana Larkins and LaToya Pringle, who combined last season for 28 points, nearly 17 rebounds and 3.3 shots blocked per game and, over their careers, hit 57 percent of their field goals—an incredible aggregate shooting percentage. That the Heels are so highly regarded despite the absence of Larkins and Pringle speaks volumes about Hatchell's recruiting ability and her annually powerful squads, which invariably run hard from end to end, with smothering defensive pressure and aggressive, fast-breaking play.

For all their firepower, the Heels will face stiff competition from league rivals Duke and Maryland in the interim, but the annual expectations for this team always extend to the NCAA tournament. There are several unanswered questions that may hold the key to the team's success in March.

Although the Heels can—and do—simply run most opponents off the court, what may be crucial is the team's frontcourt play—indeed, LSU ended the Heels' season last year by slowing them down to a halfcourt pace in the 56-50 game. Filling the void left by Pringle and Larkins is the most obvious personnel issue. Thus far, 6-foot-3 junior Jessica Breland has been a consistent performer down low, and 6-foot-1 Iman McFarland is also hitting the boards. But an important X factor will be the development of 6-foot-5 freshman center Chay Shegog, who elected to come to Chapel Hill after spurning UNC's four biggest rivals—Duke, Maryland and yes, UConn and Tennessee. Hatchell has the luxury, at this early juncture of the season, to develop Shegog slowly, with minimal pressure. In the big victory over Oklahoma, Shegog was the team's second-leading scorer, tallying 12 points and six boards in only 14 minutes. She followed up that performance with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds in the Wofford blowout. After the latter game, Shegog confessed to some early-season nerves, but said she expects to quickly acclimate to the pace of big-time college ball. If she does, she could develop into a major factor later in the season.

In the meantime, the bulk of the scoring looks to be shouldered by a sleek trio of forwards: 6-foot-1 wing-forward Rashanda McCants, who led last year's squad with 15.8 points per game and was recently featured on Sports Illustrated's cover alongside Tyler Hansbrough; Breland, the hero of the Oklahoma game with 31 points—many scored over the Sooners' 6-foot-4 All-American Courtney Paris; and 6-foot-3 senior Iman McFarland, stepping into the starting rotation after three years as a role player.

The Heels will get point production from McCants and Breland in particular, and the latter is in the early stages of a breakout season. Still, Hatchell, after a recent game, expressed concern about their "laid-back" personalities. This is more than an idle observation, for intensity could be the missing ingredient for the UNC women's basketball team. Hatchell herself used the word in explaining why she pulled her starters off the floor less than two minutes into a Nov. 25 game against the hopelessly overmatched Wofford Terriers.

Last year, 5-foot-5 dynamo Cetera DeGraffenreid appeared from the remote hollers of Cullowhee, N.C., and proved to be a capable replacement for the unforgettable, flamboyant point guard Ivory Latta, the school's all-time leading scorer. DeGraffenreid has similar speed and her own gum-chewing, spritely charisma; she can also hit threes. Flanking DeGraffenreid on the wings is a rotating trio of smart, brawny shooting guards: senior defensive specialist and Durham native Alex Miller, senior three-point artist Heather Claytor and sophomore Italee Lucas—who looked very comfortable with DeGraffenreid's lightning pace against Wofford (and more recently, against Pacific, nailed five of seven threes en route to 25 points).

And finally, observers of the team should keep an eye on a solid freshman class. In addition to Shegog, She'la White and Laura Broomfield will get some minutes: The former looks to be the latest in the program's string of top-shelf point guards and should be a reliable substitute for DeGraffenreid, while the latter is an agile forward who should see some minutes even with the talent ahead of her.

The success of the team in the 2009 NCAA tournament rides on more than individual performances. First, as Hatchell said after the 96-42 whipping of Wofford, the team's execution has to match its sheer physical power, from cutting to boxing out to the half-court man defense. Hatchell also hinted that strong court leadership needs to emerge; it's not clear, at this point in the season, who on the squad is the analogue to such intimidating, can-do personalities as Tennessee's Parker and UConn's Diana Taurasi.

There's no question that Hatchell once again has formidable talent on the floor, and she and associate head coach Andrew Calder will doubtlessly improve the team's on-court execution. But the success of this year's lineup against its mighty rivals across the country will also depend on a little luck and, above all, the so-far elusive ability to rise to the occasion.


Wolfpack women toughen up with brutal schedule

Unlike their Triangle rivals, the N.C. State women didn't get to go to the big dance last spring, but they made a lot of noise at the party they were allowed to attend.

At the Women's National Invitational Tournament, the Wolfpack ripped through three straight opponents before getting caught by Michigan State in the semifinals. This final flurry of punches was a satisfying end to an up-and-down season in which their overall 21-13 record was marred by a 6-8 finish in conference play.

Last year's Pack leaned on the fiery play of forward Khadijah Whittington and her 16.8 points a game. Whittington, unfortunately, has graduated; the good news, however, is that the team's other four starters return. The team's success will depend on Shayla Fields, who made big plays for head coach Kay Yow last year and is averaging more than 19 points per game so far this season. Yow will also need guard Nikitta Gartrell to reproduce last year's 4.3 assists per game and 12.4 points if the Wolfpack want to stay afloat in the brutally competitive ACC.

Still, State has stumbled early to a 4-3 record, including a loss to Yale and a disastrous trip to the Florida International University Thanksgiving Classic in which they dropped both games.

It gets worse: Before conference play begins, Yow's team has to run a gauntlet that includes Michigan, Florida, Seton Hall and Ole Miss. These games will go a long way toward building—or stalling—NCSU's momentum heading into league play, which just happens to begin with a game against UNC in Chapel Hill. —Jaymes Powell Jr.


Expectations high in McCallie's second season at Duke

In the shocker of the early season for the ACC's women, the Duke Blue Devils dropped their third game to the Hawks of Hartford. The Devils were slow and sloppy from the start, allowing the Hawks to jump to a quick 16-6 lead. The Devils battled back, though, and lost after senior and leading scorer Chante Black missed a last-second lay-up. The Devils—ranked No. 6 prior to the defeat—returned with a vengeance to the consolation game of the DePaul Invitational, forcing 29 turnovers en route to a 40-point rout of Southern University.

Despite the early hiccup, expect mostly strong play from the Devils in their second year under head coach Joanne P. McCallie, who guided the Devils to a 25-10 record last year and a loss in the Sweet 16. Four of the team's starters return, accounting for 85 percent of last year's scoring and 91 percent of its rebounding. Abby Waner, who led the team in three-pointers last year, is even more aggressive and accurate beyond the arc this year.

But the graduation of 1,000-point guard Wanisha Smith leaves Duke with some shoes it's hoping can be filled by junior guard Keturah Jackson and a trio of freshman from one of the nation's top incoming classes. So far, only Chelsea Hopkins shows flashes of Smith's splendor. In her first four games, she's averaged over 7 points in just 13 minutes per game. —Grayson Currin

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