Apr. 17, 2014 @ 06:39 PM

Diamond DeShields, the top freshman women’s basketball player in the country, is transferring from North Carolina.

DeShields’s decision is a stunning blow to a program that expected to return every player from this year’s team. The Tar Heels went 27-10 and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 despite the absence of Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia.

DeShields scored 648 points, more than any freshman in ACC history, and set a UNC freshman record with 38 points in a win at N.C. State. The Norcross, Ga., native averaged 18 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game and was named the freshman of the year by espnW and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

Hatchell said in a statement that she did not “know or understand” why DeShields decided to leave the program.

“As most everyone knows, I was out and missed the entire season with leukemia,” Hatchell said. “Thankfully, I’m in complete remission and will be back 100% for next season. It breaks my heart that I will not have the opportunity to coach Diamond and help develop her on and off the court. I love her and wish her well.”

DeShields did not respond to phone or e-mail messages. On her Twitter account, she wrote Wednesday: “There’s no price on your peace. Do what (you) have to do to get it.”

Early speculation is that DeShields could transfer to Tennessee or another SEC school where she could play with best friend and fellow Georgian Te’a Cooper, a Class of 2015 point guard who pledged to UNC as an eighth grader but has since opened up her recruitment.

DeShields’s mother Tisha was an all-America runner at Tennessee, and the other finalists during her recruitment were the Lady Vols, Connecticut, Duke and Maryland. Her father is 13-year Major League Baseball veteran Delino DeShields, who is now the manager of the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A affiliate.

Tar Heel women’s basketball spokesman Mark Kimmel said that no other player has indicated that she will be leaving the program. But the news of DeShields’ transfer sent UNC falling from No. 2 to No. 8 in Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 for 2014-15.

DeShields, the 2013 Naismith girls’ player of the year, was the centerpiece of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, which featured four consensus Top 25 players who all committed on the same day.

Those freshmen accounted for 60 percent of UNC’s scoring this season, the highest percentage in the country. The class includes all-ACC freshman team guard Allisha Gray, whose 42 percent shooting from 3-point range is second in school history, and forward Stephanie Mavunga, who was third nationally among freshmen with 12 double-doubles.

Besides Hatchell, who has said she will return to the bench, UNC will also add five-star point guard Jamie Cherry of West Craven High School, who made a state-record 12 3-pointers during a playoff game last month, and junior Megan Buckland, who shot 36 percent from behind the arc in 2012-13 but tore her ACL in the second game this season.

But the Tar Heels will likely struggle to contend for ACC and NCAA titles without their leading scorer, who put up 30 points in her first game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and overcame a sprained knee and a sprained ankle to score 19 points in the Sweet 16 win over South Carolina — UNC’s first win over a top seed since 1994.

Even after their Elite Eight loss to Stanford earlier this month, the players spoke optimistically about their future.

“Yes we should have won but, hey, we’re coming back with the same team next year,” sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel said. “It’s a loss, but we’re going to learn from it and come back harder next year.”

Two weeks later, the outlook would change significantly.