Her name is Stephanie; her name is Tafadzwa. She's from the Midwest; she was born in Zimbabwe. She is a fierce competitor; she is a princess. She's never met a stranger; she misses her family. She takes her faith seriously, but not herself.
Don't try to put Stephanie Mavunga into a box-she won't fit. Not her 6-3 frame and not her equally large personality. She's the freshman forward from Indiana who is a character and has character. Her bubbling spirit and basketball presence shine as bright as her lips.
When Mavunga stepped on Carolina's campus for the first time, none of her teammates knew about the nickname she left behind in Indiana. So when the same nickname was used for the first time by one of her Carolina teammates, she was extremely surprised. Evidently when "Princess Steph" transplanted from Indiana to Chapel Hill, she didn't leave her crown behind.
"I guess they say I'm high maintenance," she laughed. So what sort of things does she do to earn that name? "She has to drink everything out of a straw," said sophomore Xylina McDaniel. "If I don't have a straw, I'm waterfalling it into my mouth," said Mavunga, who doesn't like to touch her lips to cups.
Thankfully, the water bottles on the bench allow Mavunga to drink without calling for a straw. But her quirks do extend to timeouts when she can be seen applying lip gloss before reentering the game. Assistant coach Tracey Williams has the high honor of holding the tube for the princess. That led to this conversation between Mavunga and a reporter.
Q: So let me get this straight, you wear lip gloss during the game and reapply throughout?
A: Well, my lips get chapped.
Q: Ever tried chapstick?
A: Yeah, that but that leaves a weird feeling. I like how the lip gloss feels.
Q: Be honest, you want to look good.
A: Haha. Ok, yeah. But you've got to look good to play good!
If you knew nothing else of the freshman Tar Heel, you may call her a prima donna, or perhaps worse. But get to know Mavunga and you see why "Princess Steph" is voiced with affection-not annoyance-by her coaches and teammates.
Assistant coach Ivory Latta has high praise for Mavunga. "She's a lovable kid. She's so humble and she loves to have fun. She works hard and wants to be the best post player out there. She's got a great attitude; you can see a smile on her face all the time."
And her "royal" ways? "That's her, that her personality, that's who she is," Latta laughed.
Journey to Carolina
Mavunga was born Tafadzwa Stephanie Paula Mavunga in Harare, Zimbabwe. Hoping to provide a better education for Mavunga and her two brothers, her parents moved the family to Indiana when Mavunga was three years old.
She went by her given name, Tafadzwa, until she was in the third grade. At that time she transferred from a school with a very diverse students to a school that was almost exclusively Caucasian. At roll call, the teacher stumbled over her name and hearing titters from her classmates, Mavunga asked the teacher to call her Stephanie.
She grew up around the game of basketball and the sport is a common bond between her two brothers. Her older brother, Julian, played at Miami of Ohio and is currently playing in Ukraine. Her younger brother, Jordache, is playing high school hoops back in Indiana, living in the shadow of his sister, the reigning Indiana Miss Basketball.
Mavunga visited North Carolina the summer before her junior year. She recalls stepping on the court and thinking, "This is where I want to go." But second thoughts entered her head and worries of homesickness and she entertained other options, including Duke and Notre Dame, the latter being closer to home.
Enter the Internet.
One day, her dad was perusing the computer and asked her, "Have you ever talked to Diamond DeShields before? She, Jessica Washington, and Allisha Gray went to UNC for a recruiting trip. These girls look like they mean business!"
Mavunga crossed paths with these players at various times but didn't know any of them well. After some internet research, she realized the trio was very talented and each played different positions, a motivating factor for Mavunga to team up with these women in college. Mavunga started a private conversation with DeShields via Twitter, swapping stories, discussing visits, and dreaming of a team that had a superstar freshman class. The rest, as they say, is history.
The four became a package deal and Carolina basketball was the lucky recipient of this pool of talent.
Q: If it weren't for the other three, do you think you'd have ended up at North Carolina?
A: No, I don't think so.
Q: Don't tell me...you would've ended up eight miles down the road?
A long pause. Nervous laughter and a smile.
A: Yeah. If it wasn't for that, I'd be at Duke.
Written on her shoes is a phrase, PFC: Playing for Christ. When Mavunga opens her iPhone, the first thing she sees is the phrase, "Let go and let God." She has prayers on her dorm wall she prays each night before going to bed.
Her attitude on the court is always positive. "I try to walk off situations and smile when the ref makes what I think is a bad call. Looking down at my shoes, the sayings that are on there, and looking down at the name on my jersey really help me calm down and remember why I'm playing and who I'm playing for."
Her assets on the court extend beyond her good attitude and her girly ways are checked at the scorer's bench. "I can be a princess," she says, "and I can look like one, but on the court you're going to get an animal, a beast ready to be unleashed. When we're playing, it's a whole different story."
Mavunga is a tremendous shot blocker and rebounder and leads the team in both categories. Interim head coach Andrew Calder said, "She can rebound out of her area which is great skill. She's a tremendous player with a very bright future."
On the offensive side, she also has an ability to finish around the rim. Latta said, "Sometimes she takes unbelievable shots and I'm sitting on the sideline thinking, wow, she's a freshman!"
Calder praises her high basketball IQ and her ability to read a play before it develops. The entire freshman class, he said, "are not really freshman from a basketball standpoint." Mavunga also requires a double-team in the post, which frees up her teammates for open shots.
Mavunga has improved since her early high school days. She said she used to get pushed around the post, but that is no longer the case. While Mavunga may be a starter on one of the top teams in the country, she is always working to improve.
Right now, she's working on her outside shot and her ball handling. "The way I look at it, you don't practice something until you get it right. You practice something until you can't get it wrong. I keep doing something until I can't get it wrong."
Calder is right. That doesn't sound like a freshman at all. Or a princess.