As the North Carolina women’s basketball team's only true first-year player, Paulina Paris has been thrown into the deep end this off-season.
The 5-foot-9-inch guard from Congers, N.Y. joins the Tar Heels as espnW's No. 27 ranked player in the class of 2022. Paris averaged 22.9 points per game in her final season at the Saddle River Day School and was selected to play in the 2022 Jordan Brand Classic.
As the only new member on UNC's roster, Paris said she has worked to acclimate to the team's established culture since workouts began in the summer.
“From a social standpoint, it’s been a little hard,” Paris said. “But (my teammates have) been very helpful in making me feel welcome.”
The young guard said Eva Hodgson, Kayla McPherson and Alexandra Zelaya have been key positive influences in her transition to the college game.
"It's just been really great having those older girls to help me," Paris said.
Paris said her new teammates helped set UNC apart from the other basketball programs she considered during her recruiting process. After Paris decommitted from Penn State in the summer of 2021, UNC head coach Courtney Banghart quickly honed in on her, and she made an official visit to North Carolina soon after. Paris said the girls on the team — paired with the program’s potential and top coaching staff — influenced her decision to come to Chapel Hill.
Banghart said she wasn't worried about bringing in a large recruiting class or reaching into the transfer portal ahead of the season. Rather, Paris will be joining redshirt first-year Teonni Key and redshirt senior Kayla McPherson — who both missed last season with injuries — to add depth in the backcourt.
"Paris is a tough New York guard," Banghart said at the ACC Tipoff last month. "A freshman who's got incredible steadiness that I've liked."
This is unlike the past two seasons' recruiting classes, when Banghart brought in five first-years in 2020 and four in 2021.
Upon her arrival in Chapel Hill, Paris was assigned to be Hodgson's mentee this season. Hodgson, a second-year grad-transfer from William & Mary, came to UNC last year to pursue her MBA and use her last two years of eligibility.
Hodgson said she and Paris bonded over their recent transitions to the program, and she said she's loved the opportunity to help guide the young point guard as she acclimates to the fast-paced environment of college basketball.
“I just try to put myself in her shoes with how she is feeling with everything,” Hodgson said. “I try to speak encouragement to her and be there for her in practice, really just providing myself as a resource for her to lean on, because she doesn’t have another freshman to relate to.”
Paris said her situation has had its perks and drawbacks. Although she lacks another teammate her age to learn the ropes and relate to on a daily basis, the more individualized attention from her coaches and teammates has already helped her pick up drills more quickly and become a better overall player.
“The benefit of being the only freshman is that you have a lot of attention, and your coaches can really prioritize your development,” Banghart said. “I’ve been really impressed with Paulina’s day to day improvement. She's shown incredible toughness just to play on a very good basketball team and to show her worth this early.”
Although being the sole member of UNC women's basketball's class of 2026 has not been easy, Paris said she's embraced the challenge and allowed it to make her a better person and player along the way. With a small roster of 12 players, the Tar Heels will look to Paris this year and are excited to see what she will bring to the team.
“(To be the only first-year), it takes someone really special and takes someone okay with being uncomfortable,” Banghart said.
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