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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Things finally seem normal for Sylvia Hatchell and North Carolina after a year that was anything but.
In that time, the Hall of Fame coach was diagnosed with leukemia and missed the season, her freshman-led team pushed all the way to an NCAA regional final in her absence, then star freshman Diamond DeShields abruptly transferred.
Now Hatchell is back, along with a roster stocked with talent and experience from last season's run.
"They're anxious to get this season started and to move forward — and to just be a great team," Hatchell said. "It's not about one player. They're anxious to prove that the strength of the team is the unity of all five of them out there, of five of them on the court together."
The team opens preseason practice in three weeks with 12 of 13 players returning, including double-figure scorers Allisha Gray, Xylina McDaniel and Stephanie Mavunga. And they'll work again — some for the first time — under their 935-win coach, whose preseason diagnosis hung over the team all last season.
Hatchell reviewed practice footage and drew up game plans from afar while longtime assistant Andrew Calder coached games. Chemotherapy forced her illness into remission and Hatchell had hoped to return if the Tar Heels reached the Final Four, though they fell one game short in a 27-win season.
Hatchell, the sport's winningest active coach, is back to full coaching and recruiting duties for her 29th season here and 40th as a head coach, though she joked that she didn't want to mess up her staff by returning.
"I feel really good," she said. "There's nothing that I want to do that I can't do."
Her return has eased the concerns of players, too.
"Everybody's feeling like we're not having to worry about her health and always trying to figure out if she's doing better, what's going on, how's her treatment going?" senior guard Danielle Butts said. "It eliminates a distraction.
"But as far as the motivation, it's still there — to continue to fight for her because we know how much she missed us and how much she wanted to be back in the flow."
DeShields' departure is the other big change.
The 6-foot-1 guard was the Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year after setting a league single-season freshman scoring record and averaged a team-best 18 points per game. Hatchell said in April she didn't know DeShields' reasons for transferring — DeShields ultimately chose Tennessee — and said she doesn't know even now.
The decision also surprised Mavunga, one of her roommates and part of that touted recruiting class.
"It just took me some time to really think about and let it sink in," Mavunga said. "I'm not hurt because I respect her decision and I know we're going to be a phenomenal team still, so I can't necessarily say that any of us were hurt. We were just kind of shocked.
"But we moved by it quickly. The world doesn't stop."
The Tar Heels have enough pieces to contend in the ACC, starting with Gray's perimeter scoring and the McDaniel-Mavunga duo inside. The only newcomer is guard Jamie Cherry, last season's Associated Press women's prep player of the year in North Carolina.
"I feel like a lot of people are doubting us because (DeShields) is gone so they don't know what we're going to do or what type of season we're going to have," Butts said. "We've still got a lot of people who have a lot of talent and a lot to prove. So we're ready."
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap