UNC's West puts the 'student' in student-athlete
UNC freshman forward Hunter West, right, defends a teammate during Wednesday morning’s official practice for the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. West, the all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker in South Lenoir High School history, is a walk-on player for the Tar Heels. Photo by Bryan Hanks / Neuse News
GREENSBORO — When UNC tips off against Georgia Tech at 2 p.m. on Thursday in the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, one of the best female basketball players in Lenoir County history will be on the Tar Heels bench.
Hunter West, the all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker in South Lenoir High School history, is a walk-on player for eighth-seeded North Carolina (17-13 overall, 8-8 ACC). Her path to Chapel Hill has been a unique one, though, as she truly puts the “student” in student-athlete.
West, the No. 1-ranked student in the South Lenoir class of 2018, is attending UNC after earning the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship. The scholarship provides free tuition, room and board, books and four summer experiences to its recipients.
Approximately 3 percent of students applying for the Morehead-Cain receive it; some notable UNC alumni who are Morehead-Cain Scholars include Gov. Roy Cooper, ACC Commissioner John Swofford and U.S. Congressmen Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.)
West, whose Tar Heels had an official practice at the Greensboro Coliseum Wednesday morning, is proud of receiving the scholarship.
“That’s one of my most favorite memories of my entire life,” West said. “To be able to be surrounded by family and to get that scholarship, not only for them, but also for Kinston, Deep Run and South Lenoir and to be able to represent our community has been one of the coolest things.”
When she earned the Morehead-Cain, she had given up on playing basketball past high school. The 6-foot forward met with UNC’s legendary coach Sylvia Hatchell, though, and she was given the opportunity to be a walk-on for the Tar Heels.
“I thought when I graduated, that would be the end of basketball for me,” West said. “But being able to come here and contribute in any way possible to this team has been really cool.”
West first met Hatchell, the fourth-winningest women’s coach in NCAA history and a 2013 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, at a basketball camp a couple of years ago. She admitted she never thought she’d be able to play for the UNC legend.
“I went to the camp because I always loved North Carolina basketball, but I never thought I’d be able to play,” West said. “To be able to play for Coach Hatchell, with all her accolades, has been a blessing.”
When West joined the Tar Heels program, she and Hatchell knew it was going to be a big step up from South Lenoir to UNC. Strength is one of the primary factors Hatchell said West needs to improve.
“Has this been a different level for her? Without a doubt,” Hatchell said. “At first, she was like a deer with headlights in her eyes. But she’s come along and now she competes really, really hard in practice. She goes out there and gives all the other players some good competition; she gives them all they can handle.”
West concurred with her coach.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” she said. “Going from Lenoir County to Chapel Hill academically and certainly athletically has been a big transition.”
The freshman has only played in three games this season, but she and Hatchell anticipate her playing time will increase in coming seasons.
“I’m working hard and I’m trying my best … but even sitting on the bench has been such a blessing,” West said. “Being able to cheer these girls on who are so talented is awesome. Of course, I want to play but I’m also excited just to be here.”
Hatchell said, “Down the road, she’s going to really contribute to our team in game situations. She’s got a great shot and she’s a really smart player. She’s just got to get stronger and get a little more physical.”
West said she’s had some valuable lessons in her first year in Chapel Hill.
“I’ve learned that you can learn something from anyone, no matter if it’s an athlete or one of the students in one of your classes,” West said. “I’ve also learned to believe in yourself even if the people around you don’t believe in you. That’s been a big lesson, too, because in your classes and on this team, it’s very competitive.”
But West is not just an athletic and academic success — Hatchell lauded the freshman’s outstanding character.
“She’s just a great kid,” Hatchell said. “Hunter is just awesome. It’s been a privilege to have her on the team; we love her being on the team. She’s an all-around, top-notch person.”