Janelle Bailey nodded her head as North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart spoke. As hard as she tried, the junior center couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her face.
Bailey, Banghart and senior guard Taylor Koenen sat in Carmichael Arena’s media room, about 30 minutes removed from UNC’s 92-55 win over Western Carolina. It was Banghart’s first win as the Tar Heels’ new head coach. After an offseason filled with optimism for the future, the program was ready to officially begin a new era.
But for Bailey — who finished with a team-high 21 points and 10 rebounds — these weren’t tears of joy.
One of the first questions posed to her and Koenen was about junior forward Jaelynn Murray, who in Saturday’s exhibition against Wingate, tore her right ACL and was ruled out for the season.
“You got it,” Bailey said, looking at Koenen. “I can’t even talk about it. It’s a bit too early.”
Following Murray’s diagnosis, Bailey decided she’d wear Murray’s No. 30 this season to honor her friend and teammate. Though she couldn’t find the words to express how she felt about Murray at first, Bailey elaborated later on in the press conference.
“Her spirit in playing the game and how far she had come along just from the summer, I felt like it was kinda her breakout year,” she said. “And when she went down, I was just really in shock.
“But I know that I just made her proud tonight. That’s all I can say.”
Just like it took her a while to string together words after the game, the 6-foot-4 center needed time to find her rhythm on the court in Thursday's win.
At the end of the first quarter, the Tar Heels led the Catamounts by only four points, 18-14. Bailey had shot just 1-for-6 from the floor.
“We just had to get the ball moving a little bit better,” Banghart said. “Once we got the ball moving, it opened up a lot of different opportunities.”
Once North Carolina started sharing the rock more, Bailey found space in the paint to operate in. And she took full advantage.
In the next three quarters, Bailey shot 6-for-10, scoring 17 of her 21 points after the first frame. When she wasn’t laying the ball up over smaller defenders, she was getting to the free throw line, where she converted 7 of her 8 attempts on the night.
It was especially apparent that Bailey had flipped a switch after halftime. Once the Tar Heels stepped on the court following the break, Bailey scored 6 of the team’s first 8 points, allowing UNC’s 14-point halftime lead to balloon to 22 by the 6:55 mark of the third quarter.
The Tar Heels never looked back.
When Bailey was struggling, Koenen kept UNC afloat. At the end of the first half, the 6-foot-2 guard already had 15 points on 3-for-3 shooting from the three-point line. From there, she only added two more points to her scoring total while Bailey took over.
The two performances were a perfect parallel of the postgame press conference. When Bailey couldn’t answer that first question about Murray, Koenen did. Once Bailey had time to gain her composure, she took over.
“To see her go down, it was very tough,” Koenen said of Murray’s injury. “And for Janelle to rep her jersey, I think that shows the sentiment to how much we all care about her. This season is kinda dedicated to her and trying to make her proud.”
When the Tar Heels had all but wrapped the game up — leading by nearly 30 points midway through the fourth quarter — there was Murray, sitting behind the bench in a cushioned corner, her right leg stretched out in a brace.
As she cheered on her teammates in the final minutes of the inevitable victory, she wiped tears from her eyes.
It’s safe to say Bailey had made her proud.
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