When the North Carolina women’s basketball team started sluggishly, haltingly, in its 79-70 win Tuesday night against N.C. State , forward Xylina McDaniel told her teammates to keep their heads up — push through the turnovers, the fruitless offensive possessions.
That’s what an upperclassman should say, McDaniel said.
Except she’s not an upperclassman, merely a sophomore. She laughed when reminded of her standing, but McDaniel said it was more than a Freudian slip.
“It just feels natural,” said McDaniel, who scored 15 points in UNC’s first conference win of the season and was the only non-freshman in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup.
“We’re full of sophomores and juniors. We call ourselves upperclassmen.”
McDaniel, a tour de force at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., strode right into UNC’s starting five last season and promptly snatched up ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
But associate coach Andrew Calder believes McDaniel has burst through her ceiling. She’s bolstered every facet of her game, Calder said.
More punishing drives to the basket. More reliable ball-handling. More stout defending.
Those all appeared Tuesday night, with McDaniel rifling off baseline drives and polishing off strong moves to the basket. She also kept N.C. State center Markeisha Gatling , 3 inches taller and considerably heavier than the 6-foot-2 McDaniel, to a hard-fought 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field.
More important, Calder said, is McDaniel’s underclassman-only-in-name demeanor.
“One of the best things is she is very enthusiastic and very encouraging through practice and in the games,” Calder said. “She encourages all of the players, and she’s done a great job with that.”
McDaniel notices improvements in her game, too.
“Oh yes, a lot,” she said after the game when asked if she’s lifted her play since last season. She then turned not to cue cards, but to freshman guard Diamond DeShields, who sat beside her, for talking points.
DeShields placed her palm over her mouth. “Patience,” she whispered. Her teammate’s eyes lit up.
“Yes, I’m more patient for sure,” McDaniel said. By sinking more shots, she said, she creates more drives to the basket, more diverse scoring chances.
Turnovers remain a spot of bother, McDaniel said, because “I get a little excited sometimes.” Four turnovers Tuesday night gave her the second-most giveaways on the team behind DeShields .
“It happens, but I’ve seen a huge improvement in my…” Her voice trailed off as DeShields, grinning sheepishly, whispered “decision-making.” McDaniel spit out “decision-making” eventually, but not before dissolving into laughter.
If the gag had continued, perhaps DeShields would have whispered “underclassman” to McDaniel. But it only would have been that — a whisper.
McDaniel, evidently, is a full-throated upperclassman.
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