When she talks about the recruiting process — and what signing day means to her — Azana Baines keeps a level head.
There were ups, and there were downs.
"It can be stressful," she said. "So now that it's over, there's definitely a sense of relief."
Thursday, during a ceremony at Gloucester Catholic, Baines — the silky smooth 6-foot-1 guard for the Rams girls' basketball team — will sign a letter of intent to continue her basketball career at Duke University.
It will mark the official end of a wild ride: Baines was one of the most heavily recruited girls' players in the region. Dozens of coaches and scouts courted her. The fanfare and promises and attention were at times overwhelming.
When you're in it, and the weight is on your shoulders, there isn't much time to reflect on what it all means.
But since she settled on her decision, and announced it in October, Baines said, more than anything, there's a sense of pride.
And it goes beyond basketball.
"This wasn't just a big experience for me, this was a big experience for my family," Baines said. "I'm going to be the first person in my family to go to college — and on a sports scholarship, at that — so the recruiting process opened up a lot of knowledge to my parents and my little sisters. I hope I can inspire my sisters to want to achieve their own goals."
Baines burst onto the South Jersey basketball scene with a monster freshman season at Highland before transferring to Gloucester Catholic as a sophomore.
Since then, she's lived up to sky-high expectations. She averaged 20 points per game as a junior, finishing last year with more than 1,300 for her career. She thinks 2,000 is a realistic goal.
But the humble star says she didn't get here alone.
Just as she hopes to inspire those around her, Baines said she continues to be inspired by her support system.
Her family, and her AAU coach and mentor — Antoine Sabb, of Books & Basketball Academy — were instrumental as she weaved through the myriad choices in front of her.
"Without them, and without all of my teammates over the years, I don't think any of this could have been possible," Baines said.
The decision, Baines said, wasn't easy. She recalled great experiences at schools such as Miami and Virginia Tech. In both places, she said, she made connections that she hopes will last.
But Baines said she was won over by Duke's tradition — athletically and academically — and the family atmosphere.
She liked the smaller, opulent campus.
"And their goal of attaining a national championship is really what sparked me to go there," Baines said.
The Duke women's basketball team is always in the mix to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament and has done so 23 of the past 24 years, with 11 trips to the Elite Eight, four trips to the Final Four, and two trips to the championship game, the last coming in 2006.
Baines will work for the program's first-ever national title while studying biology. She said she might want to be a physical therapist someday — something to keep her close to the game she loves.
That, of course, would come after a basketball career that has potential to surpass even the collegiate level.
That's another one of Baines' goals.
But for now, she's relieved that her sole focus when it comes to basketball is her senior season at Gloucester Catholic and becoming a better player.