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No. 15 UNC hopes for boost from Breland's return

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)

Jessica Breland learned something when cancer robbed her of a season. A different version of that same message was drilled into her North Carolina teammates once the defeats kept mounting.

So now, none of the Tar Heels takes anything for granted anymore.

Maybe that's why No. 15 North Carolina seems more eager than usual to begin what it hopes is a bounce-back season. There are a couple of reasons for that: Breland is healthy and back on the court, and the Tar Heels desperately want to rebound from a miserable 2009-10 by getting back to the rebound-and-run ways that have become coach Sylvia Hatchell's trademark.

''Just because they're wearing the Carolina uniform, they've got to make it happen,'' Hatchell said. ''It's not just going to happen. They've got to make things happen. I think, more than anything else, their focus and commitment and work ethic (have improved). They want to prove to people that they're a lot better than last year.''

Breland might be the best comeback story in women's basketball - and maybe in all sports - this season. She has proclaimed herself 100 percent healthy after she missed last season while she fought Hodgkin's lymphoma. After her May 2009 diagnosis, she underwent chemotherapy treatments and returned to practice in February, though she moved noticeably slower than before.

Now, as the start of Breland's redshirt senior year draws nearer, her teammates say she has meshed perfectly back into the lineup.

''It was just like she never left,'' guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. ''They're just happy to have her back out here and playing. ... She's fit right in, perfectly, with everybody.''

That's welcome news for a proud program that last year never seemed to adjust to the absence of its best all-around player, and consequently stumbled to a 19-12 finish and one-and-done showings in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The Tar Heels' 6-8 finish in ACC play was their first sub-.500 showing in the league since 2001 and their worst since they went 2-12 in 1990-91.

It wasn't easy for the players on the court, and it certainly wasn't easy for Breland to watch helplessly from the bench.

''I thought it would get easier as the games (would) go by, but it got harder,'' Breland said. ''You would think you'd get used to it.''

So, she and her teammates are intent on getting back to their winning ways.

The Tar Heels will be one of the most experienced teams in the ACC. Five players who started at least 19 games last year are back - and that doesn't include Breland, who started 30 games from 2007-09. Italee Lucas averaged 14.7 points last year while DeGraffenreid averaged 14.2.

Hatchell says a front line that includes 6-foot-5 Chay Shegog and 6-6 Waltiea Rolle added muscle during the offseason training program, and she hopes Rolle's increased strength serves as a metaphor for the team.

Rolle ''was like a stick out there, just getting bounced around all over the place,'' Hatchell said. ''And now she's the one doing the knocking.''

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