“That’s probably the worst injury a basketball player can have ...” Hatchell said. “For a lot of people, those are career-ending injuries.”
For McDaniel, her season was done. The team, as it was constructed, quickly dissolved.
And her career, as she knew it, would never be the same.
Running with the bull
From the moment McDaniel arrived on campus, her intensity resembled that of a raging bull.
In the mold of her father — former NBA All-Star Xavier McDaniel — the Columbia, S.C. native flashed a high basketball IQ and competitive drive.
And with bulk inside and agility on the perimeter, the fleet-footed forward struck fear in opponents.
“I told her, ‘When you’re open and you want that ball, you say bull ...’” Hatchell said. “Because when she gets that ball, she’s tough.”
And when her number was called, the court was her china shop.
In her first year, McDaniel earned All-ACC first team honors and ran away with ACC Rookie of the Year.
And after falling short of the Sweet 16 in her rookie campaign, McDaniel and the Tar Heels charged past No. 1 seed South Carolina in 2014 to secure an Elite Eight berth.
“We had one hell of a team ...” McDaniel said. “But everything doesn’t always work out.”
A piercing pop, an agonizing cry — and her season was over.
Entering their Dec. 21 contest against Elon, the Tar Heels boasted a 10-1 mark and McDaniel was a key member of UNC’s budding roster.
But as the injured forward lay on the court, reality set in. She tried to walk it off, as she had before.
This time, she struggled to walk.
“When I knew I couldn’t get up, then I was like, ‘It’s bad.’”
Days later, the MRI results confirmed McDaniel’s worst fears — a torn right Achilles would cost her the rest of her junior season, at least.
“It was literally the worst day of my life,” she said.
But the misery had only begun.
During the day, she took on a rigorous routine of underwater treadmills, pool workouts and other exercises.
At night, the pain in her leg kept her from sleeping.
“Rehab was literally hell,” McDaniel said. “I cried almost every day because it was so painful.”
But remaining bolted to the bench was the hardest part.
The frustration peaked when UNC faced a familiar foe in top-seeded South Carolina in the Sweet 16.
This time around, the Gamecocks toppled the Tar Heels on a last-second drive to the post.
“There’s so much I can do to help if I was out there,” McDaniel said, retrospectively. “And I’m sitting here (and) can barely move.”
The final buzzer brought a harsh end to a promising season for a talented Tar Heel trio — All-ACC players McDaniel, Stephanie Mavunga and Allisha Gray.
“I went so long without playing with them,” McDaniel said. “I can just never get that time back.”
And once she finally returned, her teammates were gone.
The beast unleashed
In the end, McDaniel was alone.
In addition to five graduating players, three — Mavunga, Gray and Jessica Washington — transferred in the offseason.
Among UNC’s starters from 2014, only McDaniel remained.
“We had all talked about my senior year, how we’re going to do all these things,” McDaniel said. “It caught me off-guard. I did not see it coming. I don’t think anyone (did).”
Amid the program’s uncertainty, McDaniel’s teammates fled. But the senior had unfinished business.
“Coach Hatchell has proved her loyalty to me,” McDaniel said. “So I’m going to give it back to her.”
In the months following her recovery, cramps plagued McDaniel in her right leg — something she dismissed as dehydration or overuse.
But days before her senior season, a familiar terror returned.
“I woke up and I could not walk,” she said.
Doctors discovered another tear — this time in her calf — that likely spawned from her original injury. After missing the first three games of the season, McDaniel returned.
But an infected toenail limited her playing time once again.
The seemingly endless string of injuries crept into her head, stalling her production on the court — until a team doctor prodded the bull that once roamed Carmichael Arena.
“He was just like, ‘You’ve got to just let it go. Unleash the beast,’” McDaniel said.
This year, McDaniel has assumed a greater leadership role as she reclaims her physical dominance. Surrounded by walk-ons and first-years, the forward has anchored an unlikely squad to a 12-7 (2-2 ACC) record.
She still undergoes extra workouts daily, and both McDaniel and her coach peg her progress at 80 percent.
“I can’t afford to take days off right now ...” McDaniel said. “I feel myself getting better every day, every game.”
Hatchell sees glimpses of the old McDaniel — like a 22-point outburst against Northwestern or a double-double at No. 3 Notre Dame.
“If she hadn’t gotten hurt, there’s no telling how good she would be and where she would be right now,” Hatchell said.
But McDaniel isn’t giving up.
“I need to find that beast that I had (in me) ...” she said. “It’s getting there. I’m ready. I’ll be back.”
And once she is, nothing dares to stand in her way.