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'She's a bucket': Walk-on Sydney Barker's full-circle journey to Carmichael Arena

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UNC freshman guard Sydney Barker (15) dribbles the ball during the scrimmage game at the ‘Live Action with Carolina Basketball’ event on Oct. 13, 2023, at the Dean E. Smith Center.

When UNC women’s basketball first-year guard Sydney Barker was two months old, her parents brought her to Carmichael Arena to attend her first basketball game — with ear plugs in hand to help muffle the noise.

Now, playing in Carmichael hasn't felt as unconventional for Barker as it has for other incoming first-years on the roster. Instead, it feels like every other summer for the Durham native, who fondly remembers attending Sylvia Hatchell’s Beyond Amazing Basketball Camps.

To Barker, it was the highlight of her summers and an experience that would later inform her decision in the recruiting process.

“Growing up, I just always had that love for [UNC],” she said. “So when it was really time to sit down and consider [college], I feel like the only option for me was going to UNC.”

Today, Barker is a walk-on for the women’s basketball team, fulfilling her dream to play for UNC in the same building that introduced her to the sport. However, securing a spot in the ninth-ranked recruiting class in the country was easier said than done.

After turning down multiple mid-major offers and entering the North Carolina admissions process, she’s now someone her teammates call a “bucket,” looking to make an impact off the bench for the preseason No. 16 Tar Heels.

“There was a lot of mid-majors and I gave interest, I looked at them, and some of them I was really considering going to,” Barker said. “But in my heart, nothing added up to UNC.”

Betting on herself

Despite her numerous accolades from her high school basketball days, the recruiting process was not smooth for the undersized Barker, who stands at just 5 feet, 7 inches. 

A graduate of Charles E. Jordan High School — a 10-minute drive from UNC’s campus — Barker was a local star, setting multiple school records in her senior season with 1,626 career points, 777 points in a season and 49 points in a game. She earned first-team all-state honors by HighSchoolOT.com, as well as an appearance in the N.C. East-West All-Star game. 

“She's a special kid who I believe will probably wind up in our hall of fame one day,” Jordan High School athletic director Joe Sharrow said. “She’s our most decorated girl's basketball player in 60 years.”

Barker received offers from schools like UNC Wilmington, Furman University, Wofford College and East Carolina University. However, none could convince Barker enough to give up her lifelong goal of playing for North Carolina.

Having not gained enough recognition to hear from recruiters at ACC schools, Barker turned to another option that could keep her dream alive. Without a scholarship to give, head coach Courtney Banghart laid out essentially the only path for Barker: becoming a walk-on for the Tar Heels. 

After talking to Banghart, Barker decided she was willing to take the risk. Instead of committing to another university, she applied to North Carolina through the normal academic process. After submitting an application in the fall, she had to wait to hear back about her decision before she could pursue the spot on the roster.

On Jan. 31, she was accepted through general admissions. Barker called Banghart to tell her the good news and started the process of becoming the only walk-on for the Tar Heels this season.

A natural-born leader

Attending practices all summer, Barker’s bubbly personality quickly brightened a locker room filled with many new faces — eight, to be exact. 

“She has made a direct impact on our team already, just with her constant positivity and her commitment to just being a good teammate,” senior forward Alyssa Ustby said. “Those are some things that go a long way.”

First-year forward RyLee Grays mentioned how helpful Barker has already been academically. She and Barker share a few classes with each other, and she mentioned that it is often Barker who keeps her in line. 

“She’s always helpful," Grays said. "She’s like, ‘Hey don’t forget we have that thing to turn in,' and I'm like 'You're right.' If I [was] without Sydney, I don't know where I’d be.”

Don't let her easygoing personality fool you, though — Barker is still a cold-blooded competitor. With her sharp-shooting abilities and high basketball IQ, she isn’t your typical walk-on. 

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During the women’s basketball open practice earlier this month, it was clear that Barker can play alongside the loaded talent of this year’s roster. She displayed her efficiency from beyond the line in a drill focused on playing off of two feet. After a driving guard jump stopped in the paint, a shooter would fill behind the play looking for a shot from the top of the key or corner.

Seemingly every time Barker filled this role, she would find nothing but nylon with a perfectly-rotating shot. 

“She’s a baller,” redshirt sophomore guard Kayla McPherson said. “She might be a walk-on, people have their own opinions of walk-ons, but she's a bucket and I can just see her getting better.”

Through her constant pursuit to be a Tar Heel, Barker hopes her story can be an inspiration to others.

“I’m a little shorter, not as fast as everybody, and I think I’ve been told that my whole life,” Barker said. “But I’m just here to show that you can do it if you keep working and that if you love something you can keep chasing after it.” 

@cadeshoemaker23

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com