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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
UNC's High Five comprise exceptional 2009 class

By Chris Hansen
ESPN HoopGurlz

These days it seems to be a superstar world, even in women's college basketball, though most of us passionate about the sport see it as one of the few truly team-focused sports left. When new fans think about North Carolina they will think of Ivory Latta.

Latta led UNC to back-to-back Final Four appearances (2006 and 2007) was an AP All-American, Wade Trophy Finalist and Naismith Trophy candidate (2007), was named to the 2007 All-ACC First Team & the list goes on and on and deservedly so.

But the face of North Carolina may have found new mugs and it may very well be a plural identity with the fans for years to come. The Tar Heels signed the No. 2 recruiting class in the country in November. The class included five players; all ranked in the ESPN HoopGurlz Hundred.

More specifically they signed a top 10 player, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (No. 9); another top 25 player, Krista Gross (23); two more in the top 40 with Waltia Rolle (28) and Cierra Warren (31); as well another top 90 player in Nyree Williams (88). By the numbers alone, this class is incredible but for head coach Sylvia Hatchell and her new crop there is much more to it than player rankings.

Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is the No. 9 player in the Class of 2009.
"You know I think this class has got some really great players in it but also they're the players that fit us," Hatchell said. "They fit how we want to play."

Without question the size and athleticism of the class fits what most expect for the Tar Heels, but the class also addressed the team's needs from top to bottom.

"We've got some good point guards right now so I think we covered all phases of the game," Hatchell said. "You know with size and athleticism, shooting, defense, everything - I think this group is going to be a really good class if we can keep them healthy. But there (are) five kids in there that makes it a really strong class. You know some years we had three in a class or four but the fact there's five of them it's like wow with those five."

At the top of the class is a name almost anyone who follows grassroots high school basketball knows and has known for some time: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. Her defensive exploits and style of play became a signature of her Boo Williams Elite club team based in the greater Beltway region.

"I love Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. I think she's just such a leader out on the court she sees everything," Hatchell said. "I mean people know her for her scoring but the kid is a tremendous passer and defensively& she see's everything on the court. She has a tremendous basketball IQ."

The description warrants comparisons to anyone's top recruit and the Alexandria, Va., native's abilities scream superstar. Still, it is her versatility and the fact she'll do all the little things not in the box score to make an impact, that goes unnoticed too often by fans and pundits alike.

Ruffin-Pratt is also a team player. This summer coming off of a shoulder injury as well as an ankle injury she deferred to her teammates on Boo Williams who elevated the team as one of the premier club teams in the country even when she was unable to play. Upon her return to the court, she didn't try to do too much at the expense of her team; she defended and played a roll that led to a whole lot of winning.

North Carolina added another potential star on the perimeter in Gross, of Concord, N.C., the highest ranked recruit in the Tar Heel's home state. Gross was arguably one of the most improved players in the class. Her game translates directly to the college game because she is so physical on the wing and has the range to complement it.

Krista Gross
Krista Gross was the top high school player in North Carolina.
"I went and watched Krista last week and I've seen her play so many times but her strength level just dominated the high school game that I saw," Hatchell said of her wing to-be who blocked 12 shots in the game, "just how strong she was. She did a little bit of everything."

Hatchell's Heels didn't stay just on the Eastern Seaboard in the recruiting class, they invaded the Lone Star State and snagged 6-foot-6 post Waltia Rolle from Houston.

"I think Waltia Rolle's going to be really good." Hatchell added. "I mean she's only played basketball for a couple of years and she's just going to get better and better. But I love how she runs the floor and her length and just how she's just like a sponge soaking up information about basketball. Because she's only played a couple years she just loves it."

It is rare to find a player with Rolle's size and length, especially a player her size who excels in an up-tempo style of play, but that's exactly what North Carolina is getting. She is a shot-altering and blocking machine with good instincts around the basket and the ability to run the court. When she fills out and increases her knowledge of the game, the ACC is in for some tough competition in the paint.

Rolle isn't the only addition in the frontcourt, which makes this class all the more impressive considering 2009 is regarded as one of the best years for post prospects in recent memory. The Tar Heels went cross-country, adding the 6-3 Warren from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Warren is a physical presence on the block who can score and dole out assists. She also is athletic and runs the court well.

"Cierra Warren, again she reminds with the way she plays and her strength level, reminds me a little bit of Erlana (Larkins). She plays really hard and I think she's going to be a good player."

With the weapons both on the perimeter and the other solid post players already at or are soon to be headed to Chapel Hill, Warren's crafty passing ability may pay the biggest dividends; she can create from the blocks with her vision and passing touch.

With the emphasis the program puts on full-court trapping defense there may not be a better fit, style-wise, than the 6-1 Williams of Ellicott City, Md. She is a shutdown defender with a wing span that far exceeds that of most players her size, but not at the expense of quickness. She can play up in a press, block shots from the weakside or make passing lanes disappear running over to double-team someone.

"I think Nyree Williams is a sleeper," Hatchell said, forgetting perhaps that she's ranked among the best players in the country. "I think she's going to be really good because again, a couple weeks ago in one of her practices she dunked the ball. They said there were 25 people there that witnessed her dunking the ball in a practice. I think she's going to be a good player as well."

Dunking aside, her athleticism gives a high ceiling, and she's proven she is the type of kid to put the team ahead of her own point total.

It is very likely none of these players will garner the attention that Ivory Latta did, yet the future prospect of the Tar Heels returning to the Final Four seem as close as ever, especially when considering how much depth this class gives the team.

"We're playing a lot of kids now," Hatchell said. "We do, we play a lot of kids and the way we play is up and down the floor with our traps and presses so they get tired and they want to come out and rest because they're going so hard. You know if you look at minutes played, we play a lot of kids. If you look at now we've played eight games and I don't know if we've got a kid averaging, except maybe Cetera (DeGraffenreid) averaging the most, but most of them are averaging maybe half the game."

It doesn't appear that depth will be an issue in Chapel Hill for a very long time.