Breland leads Tar Heels with new perspective
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - North Carolina forward Jessica Breland's game is rounding into shape after she missed all of last season while battling Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Although her strength and stamina can wane at times still, her mobility and versatility are back and her drive and leadership have never been stronger.
"Before, I was just playing,'' the fifth-year senior said. "Now, I'm PLAYING.''
Breland acknowledges she used to get by mostly on her talent. Now, her work ethic matches her basketball IQ, all that time on the sideline giving Breland a new perspective on both life and the game.
Breland is one of three senior 1,500-point scorers who will lead the fifth-seeded Tar Heels (25-8) against 12th-seeded Fresno State (25-7) at The Pit on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The nightcap pits fourth-seeded Kentucky (24-8) against No. 13 Hampton (26-6).
Much like Breland, the 14th-ranked Tar Heels have had an inconsistent season. They dropped four in a row before making a run to the championship game of the ACC tournament, and coach Sylvia Hatchell figures their best basketball is yet to come.
The Tar Heels struggled last season while Breland was undergoing chemotherapy, finishing 19-12. With a leadership vacuum on the court, they finished their season with 11 losses in 15 games, losing their ACC tournament opener and getting their lowest seed (No. 10) in an NCAA tournament, where they promptly lost to Gonzaga.
This year, they're back to talking about making a deep run, and a lot of that has to do with Breland, who broke a 30-year-old ACC tournament record with 32 field goals in four games and averaged nearly 20 points in leading the Tar Heels to the championship game.
"It was tough to see her on the sideline knowing what she was going through,'' said senior guard Cetera DeGraffenreid. "She was really emotional with us a lot of times and it just hurt to see her over there and us out there struggling because we wanted to do it so bad for her. It's just been a lot easier for us this year with her out there.''
The 6-foot-3 forward was diagnosed in May 2009 with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the immune system. Finally, she knew why she was always coughing and dealing with sore throats, fatigue, chest pains, night sweats.
"My teammates and those around me were excited that I had an answer for why I was always sick and that I could get treatment to get better, but I was scared,'' Breland said.
She soon started counting her blessings, though. A North Carolina native, she was glad she had chosen Chapel Hill because its medical facilities were first-rate. The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center was within walking distance of her dorm and the basketball arena.
"I feel God puts you in a place for a reason,'' Breland said. "And I had the UNC medical center right here.''
Breland - who is in remission but will need five years' worth of clean tests to be deemed cancer-free - said the chemotherapy stole much of her muscle mass and endurance and one of the drugs damaged her lungs, which sometimes makes it hard to catch her breath.
The experience also gave her new perspective. She said that before her illness, she always got by on an average basketball player's work ethic "even though my coaches said I could be great.''
No more. Once she was cleared to return to the court, she had a lot of work to do just to get back to where she was, and plenty more hours to put in to become what she knew she could.
"I didn't use to have that drive,'' she said. "Now, I've found a new gear.''
She knew her absence last season created a leadership void, so she ran her team's summertime players-only practices, made each of her teammates sign workout contracts and organized pickup games and team outings while trying to rediscover her own game.
"The young players didn't have anybody's shadow to follow,'' Breland explained.
Now, they had her example to emulate, her words to digest and her comeback to appreciate.
"Just having Jessica back, she brings a totally different dynamic and energy to the court,'' said All-ACC senior guard Italee Lucas. "When she was absent last year, it was kind of tough seeing her on the bench and not being able to contribute like she wanted to. Having her back has just been a great thing.''
Breland, who averages 12.6 points and 6.9 rebounds, said she appreciates the game like never before.
"Just having the opportunity to be playing basketball again is a blessing,'' she said. "Being back with my teammates makes it so much easier.''
Breland's comeback hasn't been without its speed bumps.
"It's been up and down for her,'' Hatchell said. "She played great in the ACC Tournament. But she's had good games and not good games this year. I think a lot of that is because she was out for such a long period of time. When you have seven months of chemo, it's hard to come back off of that.''
But just her presence can give her team an emotional lift, Hatchell added.
"Having her back out there is such an inspiration to our players because when they get tired, and they can look at Jessica and think, 'Hey, she's still out there going hard. If she can do it I can,''' Hatchell said.
Fresno State is riding a 10-game winning streak and has gone 17-2 in 2011, with both losses coming against Louisiana Tech, one in triple overtime and the other in a single overtime. The Bulldogs avenged those defeats with a 78-76 victory in the WAC championship game, earning a fourth consecutive NCAA bid.
The Bulldogs, who have never won an NCAA tournament game, lead the nation in 3-pointers with 310 in 32 games. Jaleesa Ross has 98 of those 3-pointers this season and 385 for her career, eight away from breaking the national record held by Colorado State's Becky Hammon.
Kentucky is led by Victoria Dunlap's 17-point average and A'dia Mathies 13 points per game. The Wildcats tied a school record with 11 SEC wins and a second consecutive second-place finish. They'll face a Hampton team that is riding a 13-game winning streak but is winless in four trips to the NCAA tournament, including last year's 72-37 loss to Duke.