Those were the words that boomed over the sound system prior to the start of the North Carolina women’s basketball team’s exhibition opener, as senior Jessica Breland rounded out the starting lineup and met her teammates midcourt.
The 6-foot-3 senior hadn’t played a college basketball game since March 2009 due to her bout with cancer. But as she dusted off her No. 51 Tar Heel jersey for Monday’s exhibition game against Carson-Newman, none of that seemed to matter.
Leading scorer Italee Lucas and Breland carried UNC past the Eagles 116-27 in an impressive demonstration of teamwork and depth on behalf of the Tar Heels.
Breland registered the game’s lone double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, but the seemingly confident preseason All-ACC team member was anxious about her first game off the bench.
“Nobody probably noticed it, but I was nervous as if we were playing Duke or UConn,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to expect, being back out there playing in front of fans.”
The Tar Heels began with their familiar fast-paced play, which quickly appeared too much for visiting Carson-Newman. North Carolina scored 36 unanswered points before the Eagles scored their first basket with just eight minutes left in the first half.
UNC racked up 62 points off the bench, a testament to coach Sylvia Hatchell’s constant subbing throughout the game. The Carson-Newman alumna was pleased that 12 of her 13 players saw at least 10 minutes of playing time, but she was even more thrilled that they all showed a drive that wasn’t necessarily widespread in last year’s disappointing season.
In UNC’s first game since a first-round NCAA Tournament exit, the numbers spoke for themselves. Five players registered double-digit points, and the depth of the squad was unmistakable.
“It may be where we’re changing up our lineup some as far as who’s producing, but competition is great in practice because that makes them work harder,” Hatchell said. “Knowing that ‘someone’s right there, right behind me, if I don’t play that well someone’s right there waiting to take my spot.’”
The freshman mistakes were all but non-existent for the Tar Heels, as rookies Shannon Smith and Latifah Coleman combined for 21 of UNC’s points. Youth and inexperience proved to be a cause of the Tar Heels’ subpar 2009-10 season, but the early outlook showed that this year, all of that’s behind them.
“The entire game we were like, ‘Man, look at ’Tifah go,’” Lucas said. “She’s all over the place, and we’re so proud of her.”
The Tar Heels registered a 56 percent field-goal percentage and shot 70 percent from the charity stripe, aspects Hatchell said are her team’s biggest improvements.
Hatchell admitted that having Breland back was the main cause for the Tar Heels’ revamped confidence. And though it’s a day-by-day recovery process, the comeback kid was thrilled to be back.
As UNC warmed up before the first whistle blew, Breland shouted commands at her teammates. With the hopes and dreams of a squad ready to re-emerge nestled securely on her shoulders, Breland led her team onto the court, smiling all the way.
“Some days I feel like a million bucks and some days I feel like I have a little cloud over my head,” she said. “But I still push through it.”
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