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A little more than four years ago, high school hoops fans in Northern Virginia were transfixed by T.C. Williams’ singular basketball talent, but they also felt a sense of sadness knowing that she wouldn’t be around much longer. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, one of the country’s top players during each of her four years with the Titans, would soon be moving on to play at the University of North Carolina. Beyond that, professional basketball seemed likely to take her even further from home.

Yet Ruffin-Pratt continues to dazzle those fans today, this time just a little further down the road at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Her days as a Tar Heel now behind her, the 22-year-old has embraced her role coming off the bench as a rookie for the Washington Mystics, the WNBA team she used to check out when she was growing up.

“Tierra’s a kid that has a lot of pride about where she’s from,” said George Porcha, an assistant for the West Virginia University women’s team who coached Ruffin-Pratt during her first two seasons at T.C. Williams. “Alexandria made her who she is, and she grew up playing with the guys. She’s absolutely adored and loved there, so the fact that those people now get a chance to watch her as a pro, when they watched her coming up in the community center before she even got to high school, it’s fantastic.”

After struggling with a bad shoulder during her junior year, Ruffin-Pratt returned to old form as a senior at North Carolina, where she led the Tar Heels in scoring (15.5 points per game), steals (92) and assists (150). But her hopes of getting drafted went by the wayside, as her name was never called during the three rounds of the WNBA Draft on April 15.

Five minutes after the draft ended, Ruffin-Pratt received a phone call from Mike Thibault, the Washington Mystics’ new head coach. Thibault and the Mystics contemplated drafting Ruffin-Pratt in the second or third round before deciding to trade their third-round pick for a post player. When Ruffin-Pratt was left out of the day’s proceedings, Thibault called to offer some advice on things to work on, suggesting she get in excellent shape so she could give herself a good chance to make his team at training camp.

Ruffin-Pratt did just that, entering camp with a hunger and drive that left Thibault little choice but to add her to his roster in May.

“What I like about her is her versatility,” said Thibault, whose 211 wins are the most of any active coach in the league. “She can play a bunch of different positions. She can play the 3, the 2, the 1, and she can guard people. We might even throw her in there as a power forward in some games against teams with small power forwards. She gives us versatility, and what’s kept her on the floor so far is her ability to defend.”

Through the season’s first 10 games, Ruffin-Pratt is averaging about 15 minutes per contest, putting up averages of 4.5 points, 0.9 assists and 2.4 rebounds. She typically comes off the bench to spell Monique Currie, the team’s most experienced player who also serves as Ruffin-Pratt’s biggest mentor.

Though the summer is still young, Ruffin-Pratt might feel like she’s in the midst of a protracted season with no end in sight. A college season that began last November came to a close on March 26. The draft occurred just a few weeks later, and soon after that she was back on the court playing professionally.

“I think the turnaround is crazy fast for women in the WNBA,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But you never stop — that’s the main thing. You never stop playing. You have to be ready because things are a lot different than college. It’s a lot faster.”

Walking into a new situation on the court is nothing new for the Mystics rookie. Going into eighth grade, she joined T.C. Williams’ junior varsity team and learned from Porcha how to transition from the post to the backcourt. After Porcha left the school, Ruffin-Pratt had to adjust to new coaches in each of her last two seasons.

“I think I just learned to adapt,” said Ruffin-Pratt, who was rated the No. 1 guard prospect in the country by ESPNU Hoop Gurlz coming out of high school. “At T.C. I had three different coaches in four years, so I had to adapt to different coaching styles. From my freshman year to my senior year I just learned to work hard and even though you may be the best player, once you get to the next level, everybody’s good and everybody can be the best player on the team. You just learn that you have to work hard all the time to get to the next level.”

Ruffin-Pratt isn’t the only new face in the Mystics’ locker room this year. Seven out of the team’s 11 players are new to the team, an overhaul spurred by the league-worst 11-57 record put up by the Mystics the previous two seasons.

A 5-foot-10, 183-pound wing player, Ruffin-Pratt has used her consummate toughness on both ends of the floor to help the Mystics get off to a 4-6 start this season. Her best moment came three weeks ago against the Minnesota Lynx, when her team found itself tied 73-73 with one-and-a-half minutes to go. Facing the WNBA’s leading scorer, Maya Moore, one-on-one on the wing, Ruffin-Pratt drove hard to her right and glided toward the rim, absorbing a foul from Moore and converting a finger-roll that helped the Mystics grab their first home win since last August.

Porcha credits his old pupil’s success to her refusal to settle on her laurels. Ruffin-Pratt has always kept her focus on areas in need of improvement, something that Porcha believes will guide her to greater heights as her career advances.

“She always told me, ‘Coach, I want to make a living doing this,’” Porcha said. “I said, ‘If you want to make a living doing this, then these are your weaknesses.’ She allowed me to coach her. That’s what I think makes her special. She allows you to coach her and push her and challenge her.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com