Commentary

Freshmen make quick impact at UNC

No. 18 Tar Heels host No. 15 Nebraska on Wednesday (ESPN3, 6 p.m. ET)

Originally Published: December 4, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- If you are past your teen years, do this: Climb into your mental time capsule. Go back to that first semester of college, with all those new experiences and opportunities.

It wasn't just that so many things seemed possible then. It's that they also seemed probable.

Which is important to remember as you talk with North Carolina freshmen Diamond DeShields, Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington. You hesitate in asking if they think they can win a national championship with the Tar Heels, because that seems an awfully large burden to put on four kids.

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Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDiamond DeShields leads North Carolina in scoring at 16.8 points per game.

But they don't seem afraid of it. To the contrary, why not verbalize it? It is what they came here for.

"Absolutely," DeShields said. "I am going to do whatever I can to get that, and the team will, too. I believe that is a concrete goal."

The spring 2012 day all four of them committed to attend North Carolina sent a little shock wave throughout women's basketball. It was an epic haul of new talent, and a microcosm of the recruiting ritual in today's communication-saturated world.

Two players from Georgia (DeShields and Gray) had gotten to know one from Oklahoma (Washington) and another from Indiana (Mavunga) through the national beehive that is AAU/club basketball. They decided to make themselves a package deal through a series of teenaged negotiations that couldn't have happened the same way prior to the proliferation of smartphones and the invention of Twitter, Instagram, etc.

"We didn't have social media like that, the way it is now," UNC assistant Ivory Latta said. "Today, that runs the world."

Latta, in her first season on the staff at her alma mater, thinks she didn't get a cell phone until she was either a junior or senior in high school. It just wasn't very important. She wasn't on the computer much at home, either, growing up in South Carolina.

Her "deal" with fellow recruit Camille Little wasn't brokered through tweets and texts. Rather, they chatted about it in person as they attended the same camps and played in summer competitions.

"Camille said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I don't know,'" Latta recalled. "I gave her my top choices. She said, 'Let's just go to Carolina together.' I said, 'All right.' I wanted to go anyway; that just gave it an edge."

And so a decade ago, in the fall of 2003, Latta and Little were prized freshmen for the Tar Heels with national championship aspirations. They reached the Final Four twice, but lost in the semifinals both times. Both went on to the WNBA; Latta currently is a point guard with Washington, Little a forward with Seattle. Little now is playing overseas, while Latta opted to bypass that this year and start her coaching career instead.

Latta said her new job still affords her plenty of time to stay in shape for next WNBA season, and of course there's never a shortage of people to play pick-up ball with on the UNC campus.

It has been a fortuitous time for Latta to come home to Carolina, more so than she even anticipated. She knew this "Fab Four" would be starting their college careers, and she could help mentor them. She didn't know that the woman she considers a second mom, head coach Sylvia Hatchell, would be battling leukemia and that Latta would be needed all the more.

So North Carolina's freshmen already have experienced things they weren't expecting. Their head coach has been sidelined by cancer, although she keeps in close, daily contact with everything that goes on with the program. Hatchell's longtime assistant, Andrew Calder, is in charge in her absence.

The former UNC assistant who was instrumental in recruiting these freshmen, Trisha Stafford-Odom, took another job in her native California. The new kids already have lost a couple of games.

College is demanding; their time is filled up with obligations. It doesn't take much to slip on that never-ending treadmill, even with all the watchful eyes on them to help.

Latta knows exactly what that's like. Ten years ago, she was them.

"My first year -- I didn't think it went as well as I thought it would," Latta said. "The first semester is like trial and error, to see how things go. I thought it was the worst semester of my life. I remember thinking, 'Maybe I'm just dumb.'

"You've got to manage your time, go to class, go to study hall, come to practice -- and at the same time, eat right and get the right amount of sleep. They ask me about all of it: 'Coach Latta, how did you do this? What should I do about that?'"

Latta can't help but laugh, seeing a big part of her life again through their eyes.

"I'm like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" she said. "Just call me Ivory."

Allisha GrayAP Photo/Gerry BroomeFreshman guard Allisha Gray is averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds for UNC.

History makers?

None of the four freshmen were alive when North Carolina won its only NCAA title in women's basketball nearly 20 years ago. Sure, they've seen that now-legendary, buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Charlotte Smith that swished in April 1994. At the renovated Carmichael Arena, there is a Hall of Fame for UNC women's basketball, and "The Shot" is, of course, a big part of that.

The rest of Carolina's success story in this sport is all here, too. But how much does that mean to these youngsters? Well, it provides context, even if it's very abstract when you're just a kid worrying about when you'll ever have time to take a nap again.

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Chris Williams/Icon SMIJessica Washington (8.5 PPG) has tallied 25 assists to 12 turnovers in 22.5 minutes per game.

DeShields seems the de facto president of this club of four, and the chief organizer of their Carolina commitment.

"We all have different strengths and weaknesses," DeShields said. "And we felt like we could build off of those together."

DeShields is a 6-foot-1 guard -- long, rangy, athletic, versatile. She's the type of player whom scouts label a "game-changer," not just because she can take over, but because she is willing to do so. The spotlight will never make DeShields uneasy. Already, she is very used to being interviewed, accustomed to articulating her goals, and able to put things into a big-picture frame.

You ask her to describe herself and the others: 6-3 forward Mavunga, 6-foot guard Gray and 5-8 guard Washington.

"Steph is big, mobile," DeShields said. "Jess is a more poised point guard. Allisha is a pure shooter. And me, I'm more the all-around guard, or whatever you want to call it. Here at Carolina, they are going to let us go fast."

That, indeed, is Hatchell's calling card: go, go, go. Maximize possessions. Don't worry so much about turnovers. Run the other team into the ground if possible. A lot of times, it works. Sometimes … it doesn't. The kids will figure that out, because it's up to them and their older teammates to make it work.

So far, DeShields leads the Tar Heels in scoring at 16.8 points per game, followed by Gray (15.4), Mavunga (14.8) and sophomore post Xylina McDaniel (10.5). Washington is averaging 8.5 points and has 25 assists to 12 turnovers.

What has been the single biggest thing all four freshmen have had to learn thus far on the basketball court? Attention to detail. That is not necessarily the first thing you think of in regard to Carolina basketball (or even the second or third thing), but nonetheless, the at-times chaotic-looking Tar Heels have their structure, too.

Latta has worked her way into becoming a dependable starting point guard as a professional, but she says her basketball education is ongoing. So she knows how much these four freshmen are trying to absorb now. Especially with Washington, a fellow point guard, Latta can pass on a lot of practical information.

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Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesFreshman Stephanie Mavunga is the only UNC player who has started all eight games.

Washington, from Tulsa, watched Latta play in person for the Tulsa Shock when Latta was with that franchise.

"She is seriously amazing; she tells me little secrets and stuff," Washington said about the tips Latta gives. "She brings a lot of energy. As a point guard you have to be talking a lot. I haven't been the most vocal point guard; that's one of the biggest challenges to me.

"So she's always like, 'I can't hear you! I can't hear you!' So I keep trying to get louder and louder."

That is not something you have to worry about with Mavunga. If you want a detailed, blow-by-blow account of how all four of the rookies ended up in Chapel Hill together, just ask Mavunga.

On second thought, you don't have that much time. Suffice to say she remembers all the twists and turns, which is interesting considering that she has also had the longest road here of any of the four.

She was born in Zimbabwe, lived in England briefly, then moved to Indiana. She remembers things from her homeland, even though she was quite young when she left. She has not been back to "Zim" -- as she calls it -- since. Basketball has kept her too busy.

"My parents wanted me to go to a good college and get my education," Mavunga said. "So my father came over here first. Once he got established, we came. It was really different. At first I felt like, 'I don't belong here.'"

Zimbabwe to Indiana? Yeah, you can definitely understand how alienated Mavunga and her brothers must have felt. But now she is outgoing and chatty, quite a personal journey for the tallest player on this Tar Heels' squad.

Gray is the one who is initially described as quiet, although she's not really like that at all once she gets to know people. Gray's father was her high school's principal in Georgia, and she says that wasn't uncomfortable because she never got into trouble.

"It just made me keep my head on straight even more," Gray said. "I was a good child."

Latta believes in the goodness in all of them, even though she knows -- like with all freshmen -- there will be times when they try coaches' souls.

"They are hilarious; when you get them in a room or even on the court, their personalities come out," Latta said. "Diamond is chill, a serious type. She's just cool. Allisha is really funny. Mavunga is the princess of the team. Jess is the shoe fanatic; she probably has every pair that ever came out. She's always posting pictures of her feet.

"I call them the fantastic four because they are all eager to learn. They want to get better; they want to be great at what they do."

UNCEllen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDeShields (sitting), Gray (towel in hand) and Mavunga (1) are averaging 47 of UNC's 86 PPG.

They've only just begun

There were tears all around when everyone found out about Hatchell's illness. At work those first few days, Latta would keep it together. Then she'd go home and cry, worried about what might happen to Hatchell.

"She told me, 'I'm going to need you to step up.' And I said, 'OK, but I just got here,'" Latta said of becoming a coach. "She said, 'I knew you could do this; I wouldn't have brought you here if I didn't think you could.' Her faith in me helps me a lot.

"It's been tough. She's always energetic when I see her, but she's not sitting beside us on the bench and we miss that. Still, she believes we're going to get the job done."

The freshmen believe that, too, of course. It's early in December of their first year in college, but they've already experienced a lot. They lost to Tennessee at home and to Arizona State in a tournament in Cancun, Mexico, over the Thanksgiving holiday.

There are further challenges in the nonconference season, and then ACC play looms in January. Their first trip to Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium -- an important rite of passage for all Tar Heels -- is Feb. 10. You think about how they will be different by then, two months from now. And how they'll be come time for March Madness.

"You can't really tell they have a lot of weight on them," Latta said. "They can have fun, they can enjoy the game of basketball. And they are some funny little women. They keep me going."

Washington (shoe fanatic) is asked to give her take on the four, in a word or phrase. Gray? She's "country." Mavunga? She's "loud." DeShields? She's "amped." And what about herself?

On that one, Washington is completely stumped. Oh, come on, you might think. This isn't hard. Surely, you know who you are.

But that's just it: They do know themselves … and yet they don't. Not yet. After all, it's only first semester, and there's so much still ahead.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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