North Carolina is ranked No. 12 in the nation and seeded fourth in the Stanford Regional of the women’s NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels open the postseason against Tennessee-Martin at 3 p.m. Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“It’s exciting just to know that you’re going to the big dance and get the chance to play for a national championship,” Gray said. “Not many teams can do it, so it’s just a great feeling.”
Gray is just happy to be picking up where she left off as a high school junior, making her inside-outside presence felt after missing a full season because of reconstructive knee surgery. She ranked 16th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (458 points) and tied for second in three-point percentage (42.3). Gray was the Tar Heels leading scorer in seven games and leading rebounder in seven others.
“My main focus was to come in and play my role and what happens, happens,” Gray said of her freshman campaign. “Eventually I got into the starting lineup.”
There was little doubt that the 5-foot-10 Gray would be a collegiate success. She left such a big impression at Washington County that the community twice chartered a bus this season to go see her play – once to Atlanta at Georgia Tech and another two weeks ago to Chapel Hill to see the regular-season finale against Duke.
“I feel so happy that they’d take a five-hour trip to come watch me,” Gray said. “I just love the support I get from my teammates and family and friends. It’s just a great feeling.”
The folks at home in Sandersville, Ga., certainly appreciate her talents. As a sophomore, she led Washington County’s Lady Hawks to an undefeated season and Class AAA state title. As a junior, she averaged almost 30 points to lead Washington County back to the state championship game, where the Lady Hawks lost and snapped a 63-game winning streak.
Her senior season, however, was a washout after tearing up her left knee during practice in Colorado with the USA Women’s U18 National Team.
“It just increased my work ethic wanting to get back out on the court and play,” Gray said. “It hurt me because senior year is the most important year of high school and I didn’t get to play all of the games, but that just drove me to work harder to get back on court and play 100 percent with no regrets.”
Gray had already committed to North Carolina before her injury, and the Tar Heels stuck by the nation’s No. 7 overall recruit. She had already turned down offers from South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland.
She believes her Tar Heels can become one of the nation’s elite programs before her class graduates.
“Of course we do,” Gray said. “That’s why you want to come to school where Carolina already has a great tradition. You just want to come up to build on it. I think we’ll be up there.”
Part of what attracted Gray to the program was the quality of her peers. Fellow freshman Diamond DeShields, named the national rookie of the year, was a familiar friend on the Georgia all-star circuits. Gray first got to know DeShields – the daughter of former Major League Baseball player Delino DeShields – as seventh graders with the Georgia Pistols AAU team.
DeShields and Gray were named to the ACC All-Freshman Team. They joined a list of only 10 Tar Heels freshmen to ever score 400 points in a season – the first rookie pair to score that many points in a season since Ivory Latta and Camille Little in 2003-04.
Gray was confident their freshman class would make an immediate impression.
“I knew it from the start. That’s why I came,” she said. “I wanted to come in with a talented group. I knew they were real talented. I wanted to play with good players and good players want to play with other good players. So it was perfect for us to come in together.”
The Tar Heels roster includes zero seniors. The top four players are three freshman – including Stephanie Mavunga – and a sophomore.
Gray believes this year’s 24-9 record and No. 12 ranking is just a taste of how good this team can become.
“We definitely sent a message,” she said with a laugh.
But Gray doesn’t think the Tar Heels need to wait. Accomplishments this season include the first regular-season sweep of Duke in six years and a December tournament victory over South Carolina in Myrtle Beach. North Carolina lost a third matchup to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, but the setback only motivated them more.
“It was very disappointing but just adds fuel to our fire,” Gray said. “Work harder and work to improve on what we didn’t do in the game. We’re definitely ready for the tournament now.”
The Tar Heels might have to face the No. 1 seed Gamecocks and No. 2 seed Stanford to win the Stanford Regional, but Gray and her young teammates aren’t intimidated.
“That’s the mindset,” Gray said of UNC’s Final Four focus. “Any region you’re in you want to be confident enough that you can make it to the Final Four. We’re confident we can make it.”