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Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Updated: November 21, 1:33 PM ET
Triangle lures nation's top recruits

By Harold Gutmann
Special to espnW

Duke & UNC
Top 100 prospects Erin Mathias and Jamie Cherry signed up to be part of the next chapter in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.

Jamie Cherry and Erin Mathias committed to be a part of the North Carolina-Duke rivalry way back when they were high school freshmen. Their intentions finally became official last week when the seniors signed national letters of intent with their chosen schools.

And their parents breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'm really thankful that they stuck with me the past three years," said Mathias, part of a Duke class that is ranked No. 2 in the nation. "My mom was worried that they'd back out for some reason -- she's a typical mom."

Cherry, the ninth-rated point guard and the No. 49 overall prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100, said her dad is a North Carolina fan and she fell in love with the Tar Heels' style of play. She never even visited another school.

"There was no point in leading other schools on and making them believe I would go there," said Cherry, who has averaged 25.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in her first three years at West Craven (N.C.) High School. "I felt like I knew where I wanted to go."

And the Carolina grass has only gotten greener in the meantime.

Since Cherry's original decision to go to UNC, the Tar Heels hired WNBA point guard Ivory Latta as an assistant coach. The 5-foot-7 Cherry idolizes Latta, another small point guard (5-6) who wound up scoring more points (2,285) than any other Tar Heels player in history.

"I wanted to be like her growing up," Cherry said. "Just her fight for the game, her love, her passion that she played with. I'm going to be able to learn things from the point guard standpoint, like leading a team and being vocal."

Mathias, the 38th-ranked senior in the country, had visited Penn State, Maryland, Pittsburgh and West Virginia and hadn't thought about committing as a freshman, but she fell in love with the coaches, the campus and the style of play when she got to Duke.

The early pledge worked to her advantage when she had to sit out her sophomore season with tendinitis in her knee. By the time she came back as a junior, she didn't have to deal with the spotlight of being a Duke commit at such a young age.

Mathias averaged 17.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.4 blocks last season and earned all-state honors. She sees herself filling the role held by current Blue Devils senior Haley Peters -- a power forward who is tough on the boards and on defense but can also step out and shoot the 3.

Mathias and Cherry were the first members from the class of 2014 to commit to their schools. And while Cherry remains the only UNC commit, Mathias has company: She joins three top-25 prospects to give Duke the No. 2 class in the country, behind only UCLA. No. 10 overall prospect Lynee' Belton was the latest to commit, in early August, after she took unofficial visits to Virginia, Connecticut and Georgetown.

The 6-2 post player joked that she wished she committed as early as Mathias because of how chaotic the recruiting process could be.

"It was a curse but a blessing," Belton said. "Just everybody calling you and texting your phone at the most inconvenient time."

Belton chose Duke because it has strong basketball and premed programs. It also helped that her father was already a fan of the school because former Blue Devils guard Nolan Smith comes to his barbershop.

Sierra Calhoun
Sierra Calhoun, the No. 17 prospect in the nation, is taking her explosive game to the Blue Devils.

Since Duke's current senior class is heavy on perimeter players, Belton is transitioning from the post to the wing so that she can fill in when those players graduate this year.

The recruiting class of Mathias, Belton, forward Azura Stevens and wing player Sierra Calhoun could be what Duke needs to finally win its first NCAA title. Duke's 2013 recruiting class was ranked second in the nation, behind only the class compiled by -- you guessed it -- North Carolina.

"That would be amazing to be a part of their first national championship," Mathias said. "We've definitely talked about it. It's every team's goal, obviously."

Meanwhile, down the road from North Carolina and Duke, NC State first-year coach Wes Moore signed three three-star players from the class of 2014 -- Chloe Jackson, Akela Maize and Chelsea Nelson -- as the Wolfpack look to break into the upper echelon of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Moore praised Jackson's versatility as a scorer, Maize's length and ability to rebound and Nelson's speed (she also runs cross country).

Now that signatures have been scrawled and the ink is starting to dry, all of these players are a step closer to competing in the college basketball hotbed that is North Carolina.

"It felt great to finally be able to call myself a Tar Heel," Cherry said, "and get that behind me."