Kea’s personality is leading UNC on a midseason turnaround that is sending ripples through the college basketball world.
In the span of a week, the team that hasn’t posted a winning record since the 2014-15 season is now looking more like the premier program that won four ACC Tournament titles and appeared in two Final Fours in the previous decade.
Kea arrived as a sophomore transfer from Vanderbilt after that 2014-15 season. Just weeks before she began classes, the last of the four members of UNC’s No. 1 2013 recruiting class transferred out of the program with the cloud of an NCAA athletic-academic scandal hanging over the team.
And so began a three-year period where the Tar Heels won 11 out of 48 conference games.
Now, the cloud has lifted, and there’s something brewing again for UNC with Kea leading the way. With a 5-4 mark in ACC play, North Carolina is projected to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2015 — and is on the cusp of being nationally ranked.
To understand what is going on in Chapel Hill, you have to understand the Tar Heel playmaker who is at her best in the face of a challenge, whether going up against all boys in youth rec leagues or the No. 1 team in the country.
Making people cry isn’t something Kea meant to make a habit of.
Growing up in Greensboro, she was often the only girl on the rec league team coached by her dad, Willie. She just enjoyed competing, so she didn’t notice much.
The boys definitely did.
“I used to have dads calling me saying 'Coach Kea, please don’t let my son hold Paris in practice anymore. He came home crying because she ate him up,’” her father said. “Nothing out of that was intentional. She was just playing her game.”
In high school she also played soccer and could have played in college. But her mother says that Paris liked the pressure that comes from having all eyes on her.
“She likes the audience from basketball,” Swanee Kea said.
Paris faced some of her strongest competition yet when her AAU Lady Phoenix team took on a squad that featured two of the top guards in the Maryland area. The touted matchup between the stars turned out much the same as rec league practice.
“Those girls were crying, wanting to get out of the game because they could not get past Paris,” Willie said. “When she turns it on, she can really turn it on.”
Her AAU coach had a phrase for these stretches of play where Paris seemed to see what other players were going to do before they did it: “Getting cookies.” A girl could get past Paris once, maybe twice, but Paris noticed everything.
She would adjust.
“And Paris was picking up cookies the rest of the game,” her dad said.
Her vision on the floor made Paris a natural play-caller. Paris watched from the bleachers during one of her brother Jermani’s games, with her dad coaching, as the team battled to a two-point deficit with four seconds to go. She walked over to her dad and drew up a play for a clean look at a 3-pointer. They ran with it and won the game.
Winning rec league games is one thing, but winning college basketball games is another. Thankfully for her coach, her cerebral ability translates to the collegiate level.
In the huddle on the sideline of UNC games, Paris sits in the middle seat, with Hatchell kneeling directly opposite of her.
“She's like, ‘P, what play you got in mind?’” Paris said. “I'll say, ‘Arizona,’ and she'll say, 'Good, ‘cause I was thinking the same thing.’"
Against Notre Dame, Paris’ vision was the backbreaker for the top-ranked Fighting Irish. Her 30-point, 10-assist performance was the story of the game. She scored UNC’s final four points in the 78-73 upset, the first time an unranked team had beaten a No. 1 in the past 198 tries.
But the next day, at lunch with her mother, she mentioned a small moment that proved to be the turning point of the game.
Paris detailed how she had noticed Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale pushing forward to pressure her when Paris attacked the left side of the basket on a previous play. The defender behind, Jessica Shepard, swung up from the empty corner for support, leaving a hole.
As Notre Dame converted an and-1 to tie the game with 1:48 to go, Paris mentioned this observation to teammate Leah Church, according to her mother.
“(Paris) said, ‘As soon as they do it, why not go over there and get open on the wing and take the three?'”
On the drive back up the court, Paris hurled the ball over the heads of Ogunbowale and Shepard to the left corner, where Church was waiting.
Church rewarded the expectant crowd with her only made three of the night, giving UNC a lead it held for the final 1:25 of the game.
Paris can seem shy, but she draws energy from a crowd. That is most on display when the arena is packed. Even before her outpouring against the Fighting Irish, she scored a career-high 36 points and buzzer three to force overtime in the 19-point comeback win over No. 15 Duke last year.
Paris isn’t a prototypical self-serious athlete, though. She likes to laugh, to surround herself with people, to be goofy.
Centerra Harris, Paris’ assistant coach at Page High School, remembers the two sides of the player at practice. Paris would go through grueling workouts, but never ceased to be silly.
“I always joked with her and told her she’s going to get us kicked out of practice,” Harris said. “She has a very fun side and a very big personality.”
After the Notre Dame game, she stayed in Carmichael Arena to greet the many fans who stayed to celebrate the win. A few hundred kids wanted a chance to see the star player, to snap a picture or to just talk to her. Paris’ parents waited, but they didn’t mind. They know how much it means to her.
Paris has fun with the game. She loves to compete, even in the face of a challenge, but knows what matters to her most – her teammates, her family, the fans.
“The biggest thing for me is just inspiring people,” Paris said. “That probably makes my heart happiest.”
Maybe that’s why when Paris takes the court in front of an audience, giants will fall.
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