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Ruffin-Pratt found voice on sideline while injured.

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Tierra Ruffin-Pratt practiced free throws & other basketball jargon Thursday afternoon in Carmichael Arena.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt might be listed on North Carolina’s roster as a guard, but to think that’s her only role would be a mistake.

This season, the 5-foot-10 junior has played every position on the court.

And when she was sidelined for the first 13 games of the season to recover from off-season shoulder surgery, Ruffin-Pratt suddenly found herself in yet another new role.

“I had to be able to talk and give my input, even to the coaches. They started calling me coach Pratt,” she said.

Redefining a role
While Ruffin-Pratt is known for her aggressive demeanor and on the court, taking the floor was not an option for the first half of the season.

The surgery repaired an injury sustained at a summer pick-up game that rendered her right shoulder immobile for five weeks. Once she returned to UNC, rehabilitation presented uphill battles.

Eventually, she cleared a major hurdle in recovery and was allowed to return to practice. Though she reached the milestone, being held out of competition was still frustrating to the veteran player.
“I felt all right before the games started,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “Then the games started, and I wasn’t able to play. Thirteen games went by, 15 games went by, and I’m just sitting on the bench and there was nothing I could do.”

UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell could tell that Ruffin-Pratt was frustrated by her inability to physically contribute during the games. Prior to the surgery, she had only missed two games in two seasons.
Hatchell would have preferred to have her most versatile player contributing on the court, but having Ruffin-Pratt’s help on the sidelines was the next best thing.

“(We) gave (injured players) responsibilities as far as getting signals and charting the opposing teams’ tendencies and that type of thing,” Hatchell said.

“That’s why we called her coach Pratt because she is a very intelligent player. She wants to be a coach one day, so that’s another reason.”

Like any coach, not all of Ruffin-Pratt’s sideline responsibilities revolved around charts and whiteboards. Self-described as a less vocal player on the court, she found her voice on the sidelines, encouraging her teammates and giving coaches her input.

“When I’m playing, I don’t really talk a lot unless it’s defense,” said Ruffin-Pratt, whom Hatchell has deemed the team’s secretary of defense. “I had to be able to voice my opinion even when I didn’t feel like it was going to be heard.”

Return to the court Typically, a player’s return to competition from injury or surgery is gradual. A slow transition helps ease the athlete back into the fierce level of competition that cannot be simulated in practice.
For Ruffin-Pratt, her return to game action was an exception to the rule.

After sitting out for 13 games, she saw 32 minutes of playing time in her first appearance of the season, a double-overtime win against Virginia.

“We put her out there just to see what she could do, and she played really well,” Hatchell said. “We didn’t have any intention of playing her that many minutes, but that was the situation and she did a great job.”

Since returning, Ruffin-Pratt has averaged 31.4 minutes per game. But getting back in the swing of things is easier said than done after a long break. All of the motions are the same, yet Ruffin-Pratt said settling into old shooting rhythms can be difficult.

“At the beginning it affected (my shot) when I first got back to practicing a little bit,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “I’m getting back into it, still being aggressive and shooting the ball.”

Ruffin-Pratt still isn’t in top shape, and she experiences residual discomfort from the surgery.
While it would be understandable for Ruffin-Pratt to be wary of reinjuring her shoulder, her statistics show that she is playing without fear. She is averaging eight points and six rebounds per contest, including a career-high 21 points against Wake Forest.

“She’s really cut loose,” Hatchell said. “I don’t think she’s holding back any at all.”

The Tar Heels’ turning point
Ruffin-Pratt’s return not only adds depth to an injury-depleted rotation, but it also gives the Tar Heels an additional resource with significant game experience.

“We were young before,” junior teammate Krista Gross said. “We had a lot of freshman who had to step up and play. So now that we’re getting in deep to ACC play, it’s nice to have more experience in our starting lineup.”

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Hatchell lauded Ruffin-Pratt for her basketball intelligence and adaptability on the floor — two traits that have the potential to be game-changers in the tough ACC matchups to come.

“(We put her) wherever we need her,” Hatchell said. “If a team is pressing us, she’s really good at breaking a press. If they’re playing us in a zone defense, she’s really good at flashing into the middle and reading whether she has a shot or someone else has a shot or who to pass it to.”

Though Ruffin-Pratt got a taste of the coaching life early in the season, she is more than happy to return to her role as a player and make an impact on the court.

“Everybody was excited when they first told me that I could start back practicing,” she said. “(Before) all I could do is voice my opinion, but now that I’m back out there, I can do what I’m used to doing.”

Contact the Sports Editor
at sports@dailytarheel.com.