Saturday, November 21, 2009

Centennial grad back for basketball, home cooking

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

Thanksgiving dinner is coming early for Italee Lucas this year.

The North Carolina junior and Centennial High graduate will be in town this weekend to face the UNLV women’s basketball team Sunday at Cox Pavilion. But first, Lucas and her Tar Heels teammates have a special trip to make.

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, the team is heading over to Lucas’ grandmother’s house tonight for a feast.

“We’re really excited for that,” Lucas said. “Everyone knows how good she can cook, so we’re all just ready to eat all of her food.”

For Lucas, a healthy portion of Ruby Lucas’ ribs could be just what’s needed to calm her nerves before Sunday’s game, the first she’ll play in her hometown since graduating from Centennial in 2007.

“I’m nervous before every game,” she said. “But once I’m on the court, I try to have a glass bubble around me, and I try not to pay too much attention to the crowd. With my family and friends there, I’ll have to step into that bubble right away.”

Lucas, a junior, moved to Chapel Hill after a decorated high school career at Centennial, where she led the Bulldogs to back-to-back state championships in 2004 and 2005 and won Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year her senior year in 2007.

Her cross-country move was put to ease by the up-and-down style of North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell.

“Our style really fits her,” Hatchell said. “She has improved tremendously since she arrived here and has become a leader on the team, playing with a lot of heart and emotion, which I love.”

As a freshman, Lucas said it took time to get used to school, the Tar Heels system and living thousands of miles from home before she broke out last season.

“It was definitely different,” she said. “Coming from Vegas to a smaller town, there was so much to learn being away from home that I would have never learned. I’m just very thankful I got a chance to get out of Vegas and get the experience I’m getting.”

Last season, Lucas started 31 of 35 games at shooting guard, scoring in double figures 26 times over the course of the season. Perhaps most impressive was her outside range. She led the team and finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 70 3-pointers.

“We like to fast-break a lot and it helps Italee,” Hatchell said. “She’s a fast-break type of player. When we come down the court, it gives her opportunities to drive to the basket or pull up for 3-point shots.”

Lucas was also named second-team All-ACC Tournament for her efforts before the team’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Purdue.

This season, she expects the No. 4-ranked Tar Heels (2-0) to finish closer to the Tar Heels of her freshman year, which made it to the Final Four, than the Tar Heels of her sophomore year, whose run last year was ended prematurely.

“We want to win the ACC and the ACC Tournament,” she said. “But more than that, we want to advance farther in the tournament than we did last year. It left a bad taste in our mouths.”

Lucas credits her father, Lamar Lucas, for paving the way from Las Vegas to Chapel Hill by enrolling her into the best tournaments and onto the best teams. “I’m really excited to get a chance to play in front of my family and friends,” Lucas said. “I haven’t gotten a chance to show them what I’ve got since my college career started.”

Her coach is equally excited for Ruby Lucas’ dinner Friday night.

“As soon as we land, that’s what we’re doing,” Hatchell said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard all about her cooking.”

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