Italee Lucas never needed more than one word to measure her success.
“My dad always told me to be undeniable,” the junior guard said. “It means don’t let anyone question your work ethic, whether you’re a leader.”
Lucas has continued to fight for that recognition this season alongside junior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid.
But with two consecutive ACC losses, the two veterans stand at a critical juncture.
While the direction of the team remains in question, another fact has proved undeniable.
The success of the North Carolina women’s basketball team relies on those two names.
“However they go,” coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “That’s how our team goes.”
In UNC’s Feb. 1 loss against Florida State, Hatchell approached the pair with a reproach and reminder.
This is your team.
That ownership began this summer, spurred by an unexpected occurrence.
Senior Jessica Breland, UNC’s leading returning scorer, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
While basketball took a backseat to Breland’s recovery, DeGraffenreid and Lucas were thrust to the forefront of the team.
“Man, you lose the leader of the team,” DeGraffenreid said. “We said, ‘Someone has to step up. It has to be one of us.’”
Lucas and DeGraffenreid lead UNC in scoring with 17 and 13 points per game, respectively.
But a recent slide has proved those efforts insufficient.
North Carolina (16-5, 4-3) ranks fifth in the conference, with three of its losses recorded since conference play began.
“It’s our veterans, DeGraffenreid and Italee, who are not playing well,” Hatchell said. “That’s our experience.”
In two ACC losses against Miami and Virginia Tech, Lucas and DeGraffenreid averaged only 15 points combined.
Lucas committed an uncharacteristic eight turnovers against Miami, and DeGraffenreid had just six points on 2-of-8 shooting.
“It’s tough to have off games for us,” Lucas said. “We have to accept that. We have to embrace that.”
At times, the tandem has shown flashes of brilliance, often in late-game surges.
In a road win against N.C. State, Lucas rallied the team from a nine-point deficit to win with a career-high 33 points.
DeGraffenreid delivered a vital eight points in the second half in a win against Maryland, which included two crucial back-to-back layups.
But flashes alone have not been enough.
In a rally against Florida State, Lucas’ second-half 14 points could not overcome a 19-point deficit.
“We’ve been together since we were freshmen. We’ve always had these talks,” DeGraffenreid said. “But now they are getting more serious. How can we play better? How can we lead?”
As UNC heads to No. 6 Duke, DeGraffenreid can’t help but remember who first led her there.
Erlana Larkins. LaToya Pringle. Indisputable leaders to whom that 2007 team belonged.
Lucas and DeGraffenreid will follow in their footsteps tonight, keeping in mind the leader who watches from the bench.
“Together we know we can be stronger than what we have lost,” DeGraffenreid said. “We just have to keep fighting.”
Hatchell considered Friday how good the team could be. If only her All-America guards could get back on track and remain there.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Better than I could even anticipate.”
As she spoke with her veteran backcourt, she reminded them of one fact she does know for sure.
“Coach was saying T is our little engine,” Lucas said, referring to DeGraffenreid. “I can be the driver.”
As they go, the team will go.
Contact the Sports Editor at email@example.com.
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