She still remembers the team in 2013-14, which was minutes away from securing its first Final Four berth since the 2006-07 season. In the same vein, she remembers a barren team two seasons later, which was in the midst of a rebuilding process after all four of North Carolina’s recruits from the top-ranked 2013 class transferred.
She played for head coach Sylvia Hatchell before, during and after Hatchell’s battle with leukemia that took her away from coaching for the 2013-14 season.
Hillary even saw her own role shift, from reserve player two seasons ago to sole frontcourt starter for the Tar Heels (12-6, 1-4 ACC), who play No. 6 Notre Dame (17-3, 5-1) at 12 p.m. on Sunday in their toughest test of the season.
But Hillary considers basketball one of the most consistent things in her life.
“Take whatever hit comes,” she said. “Figure out whatever it is and keep going.”
Hillary’s father, Shelton, was in the military, so she lived in several states — bouncing around the country until she settled in Florida in eighth grade. Around this time, she started devoting her time and effort to basketball.
By high school, Hillary considered “home” to be in Fernandina Beach, Fla., where her father lived. To put Hillary in an environment where she could improve as a basketball player, Shelton funded her private school education at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville — about an hour away from her home.
“At first, it was very expensive,” Shelton said. “We sat down and talked about it, and Coach (Tony Bannister) invited us to go to see them play. She sat down and said, ‘Well, Dad, you know, that’s a great way I can get better.’”
“I took a gamble and said we’d do it.”
To circumvent the long drive, she stayed with a different teammate for each of the 10th, 11th and 12th grade. She only came back to Fernandina Beach to see her father when she had a free weekend.
“My dad was pretty much the most stable thing in all of my life ... ” she said. “It was me and my dad for a long time, and because he was so consistent with certain things, it is kind of how I am.”
Shelton coached his daughter when she first picked up basketball, so naturally, she takes after his traits and habits. She talks in third person as if she’s across the room, motivating herself to do something. She knows to save money, like her dad always told her.
“It’s weird to explain to people my dad and I’s relationship because, actually, even though we are so close and I spend a lot of time with him, we’re not like actually ever together,” she said.
“People were like, ‘Is it hard not being around your dad?’ And I said, ‘No, because that is what we’ve always done.’”
She was the youngest child of four, with a 10-year gap between her and the second-youngest sibling. Hillary’s father and mother divorced when Hillary was too young to completely comprehend what was going on.
She said her parents were amicable enough, and it didn’t affect her growing up. Still, she didn’t live where she considered “home” for most of her adolescent life.
“I never really got out of the whole military brat phase,” Hillary said. “As I got older, I was living in Jacksonville where he was home, so I was never actually home. Then I go to college, and I’m in North Carolina while he’s in Florida.”
Basketball led her to UNC, where she found a second home.
‘She’s going to be mayor’
Hillary’s been told she is wise beyond her years by her teammates and coaches since she arrived at UNC.
It makes sense, given the breadth of experiences she had as a child.
“The players, some of them call her ‘Mama’ and some of them call her ‘Old Lady,’” Hatchell said. “She has wisdom. She has a good head on her shoulders. She makes good decisions. She’s very solid, and the players have tremendous respect for her just because of who she is.”
Hatchell said Hillary calls the eight first-years on the roster her “eight baby sisters.” Some of this is based on age — she’s the only senior on a young UNC squad — but it’s mostly because of the leadership and love she brings to the team.
“I call her ‘Mayor’ because I told her she’s going to be mayor one of these days,” Hatchell said. “Because she’s just a natural-born leader.”
But don’t be deceived. It’s not all business, all the time. Despite the epithets the players use to poke fun at their oldest teammate, Hillary has always loved to have fun.
“I get that from my dad, too,” she said while voguing for The Daily Tar Heel’s photographer in the seats of Carmichael Arena.
She laughs with her coaches and teammates during the game. She dances to a song in the background while having a conversation with her physical trainer — someone she’s spent all too much time with.
‘The consistent bar’
Hillary came into her first season banged up, missing all but five games with a foot injury. A year ago, she tore her Achilles tendon in the offseason, missing the entire season.
Even this season, she’s struggling to stay 100 percent healthy.
But this is the type of adversity Hillary has prepared for since she was born. When the whole world is reeling around her, she will be who she has been her entire life: a wise, reassured figure of stability.
“I’m just trying to find the consistent bar in everything that is going on, I guess,” she said. “I don’t really know how I keep finding it.”
“When I explain it to people, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re going through a whirlwind of stuff.’ But for me, it’s constant because it doesn’t seem like it.”
It’s all she’s ever really known: treating basketball as her second home, seeing her dad as a reflection of herself, living away from her family, bouncing back from debilitating injuries. The chaos, the hysteria, the love, the fun — she persists through it all.
In her last semester at UNC, Hillary can’t wait to end this volatile, anomalistic five-year stretch of collegiate basketball with a bang. But either way, it won’t change who she is.