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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
North Carolina signees put friendship first

By Andrew Linnehan

If it's true that America loves underdogs, the North Carolina women's basketball team is about to become the villain.

Coach Sylvia Hatchell signed four of the top prospects in the 2013 recruiting class Wednesday, sounding an alarm that is sure to reverberate through the offices and practice facilities of even the most prominent women's college basketball programs.

But the beauty of this blockbuster bunch is not in its polished state. Instead, it is the process by which each part worked with another that produced such a Picasso.

It dates back to late April at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Hampton, Va., where some of the finest AAU basketball teams in the country congregated. It was there that Diamond DeShields, the No. 3 prospect in the nation, met Jessica Washington, the No. 14 prospect, and Stephanie Mavunga, No. 23.

"I saw them at the tournament and really respected their games," said DeShields, a senior at Norcross (Ga.). "And then we ran into each other at our UNC visits right after the tournament."

Call that run-in coincidence, call it serendipitous, call it spring rush. Whatever it was, the meeting in Chapel Hill ignited a close-knit basketball sorority.

"From then on, we exchanged numbers and were constantly talking and texting and on Twitter," said DeShields, who brought fellow Georgia blue-chipper Allisha Gray, the No. 7 prospect, into the circle.

DeShields and Gray have known each other since sixth grade, when they were teammates on the Georgia Pistols.

"Diamond gave me Allisha's phone number so I could reach out to her and introduce myself," said Washington, who wanted to make sure all four girls got to know each other the best they could. "We came up with a plan together to see if we could get the top players in our class to commit together."

Within days of visiting the Chapel Hill campus, the quartet was on the same page.

"We kept discussing what schools we liked and what coaches we liked, and UNC became the common denominator," DeShields said.

On Cinco de Mayo -- mere days after texting, tweeting and telephoning -- DeShields, Washington and Mavunga started the buzz by conference-calling Hatchell to give her the good news. Gray would've been on the conference call, but she had AAU practice. So she took her turn shortly after.

When the day was over, UNC had lured a class for the ages. And a program that missed the NCAA tournament last season suddenly had reason to dream of Final Fours again.

What you might not read about in the history books, however, is that the bond began well before these stars enrolled at UNC. It was the players' different backgrounds and the experiences they shared before their matriculation that shaped this class into something even more special than any group of rankings could ever indicate.

Take, for instance, what Gray taught each of her friends about mental toughness. Weeks after the four committed to UNC, Gray tore her ACL and MCL while training with the USA Basketball U18 national team. Washington and DeShields were with Gray and have been supporting her ever since. Mavunga calls frequently to see how her future teammate is dealing with the rehab. They all understand how hard Gray is working to run, dribble and shoot before reporting to campus next fall.

"I've had to work so hard," said Gray, who probably will miss her entire senior season at Washington County (Sandersville, Ga.). "It's intense. I go to rehab five days a week. I haven't been able to run, shoot or [anything]. Hopefully in January I can start basketball-related activities again."

Washington has experienced adversity as well. Shortly after she reported to Jenks (Okla.) for her senior year, three fellow students died tragically in a six-day span, shaking a community normally unshaken both in the classroom and in the athletic arena.

"I would say they had a reality check that this can happen to someone at their age," said Mandy Nightingale, the girls' basketball coach at Jenks.

Washington echoed her coach's sentiment.

"Whenever something like this happens, it really hits you," she said.

While Gray and Washington will man the crisis management department, DeShields can handle media relations.

The daughter of former major league baseball speedster Delino DeShields, the family is well-versed in how to handle the big-time. When Diamond speaks, she synthesizes thought with an eloquence and articulation rarely found in a teenager, and that maturity and uncanny sense of identity is certain to rub off on her Chapel Hill sisters.

Then you have Mavunga, the classic coach's dream. She's a well-rounded, do-everything student-athlete at Brownsburg (Ind.) who is just as versatile off the hardwood as she is on it. In addition to her 22 points, 12 rebounds, 5 blocks and 2.5 steals per game that won her Gatorade Player of the Year in Indiana last season, Mavunga comes fully equipped with an honors-level GPA and a vice president role in the Brownsburg High House of Representatives. If that doesn't ooze role model for the Tar Heels, nothing will.

Teams don't win championships on talent alone. Teams win championships because each individual makes a contribution that enhances the greater whole. While in the classroom at UNC, the women are certain to obtain their degrees from different areas. But they'll all share a double major: chemistry.

"I'm sure people will look at it like we're the Miami Heat or something like that," Washington said, referring to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh's decision to assemble a megateam in South Beach. "But we are really determined to come in and make big changes. & And hopefully get a few rings."