Madinah Muhammad had fun on Sunday.
In North Carolina’s 86-72 win over Clemson, she shook her head and smiled at a ball-handler when, try as she might, the guard couldn’t drive past Muhammad on a first-half possession. She grinned at a referee after being whistled for a turnover: “Travel? That wasn’t a travel!”
And when she made a 3-pointer out of a third-quarter timeout — plus the foul — she leaned back into a semi-mob of teammates on the bench, reveled in their celebration and excitedly flashed the number three with her fingers before heading to the free-throw line to complete a four-point play.
One might suppose Muhammad’s relaxed attitude had something to do with the game at hand, a comfortable blowout by any measure. UNC nearly tripled Clemson in the first quarter with a 27-10 lead, worked that margin up to 22 and ultimately won by 14 points.
But it’s a bit more than that for Muhammad, a redshirt senior guard who sat out UNC’s 2018-19 season after playing three seasons at Ole Miss. Think about it this way: if you lost the sport you loved for a year, wouldn’t you take on your final season like this?
“I just try to bring and play with as much energy as possible,” Muhammad said. “It's my last year, and I don't want to have any regrets.”
Born in Chicago — which has the country’s best pizza, she notes — Muhammad won two state championships with top prep school Whitney Young before heading south to start her college career.
In three seasons with Ole Miss, Muhammad led the Rebels in scoring as a sophomore (13 points per game) and as a junior (16.8). She started 72 of 87 games and scored over 1,000 points.
Then came the waiting game.
After officially transferring to UNC in May 2018, Muhammad spent a redshirt year on the sideline, in accordance with an often-critiqued NCAA regulation. The closest she came to in-game action was running the scout team in practices against the starting five, often imitating opponents’ best players.
“Going from playing against them to playing with them is just such a better feeling,” she said. “I feel more connected.”
Her plans were briefly in flux last spring when, on the heels of an 18-15 season that ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the University placed head coach Sylvia Hatchell and her staff on administrative leave and commissioned a law firm to investigate allegations of racist remarks and mishandling injuries.
Hatchell ultimately resigned on April 19, and UNC hired then-Princeton coach Courtney Banghart within the month. Muhammad was “definitely nervous” during the process, she said. She’d uprooted to Chapel Hill, learned a brand new program and system, only to have to start over again.
“It was kind of crazy,” she said, “but I just put my trust in God, let him lead the way and that's why I'm still here.”
She adds of Banghart, who has led UNC to a 16-6 record insofar: “When she first got here, I fell in love with her automatically. It just made me a lot more comfortable.”
Heading into the Clemson game, Muhammad was averaging 12.9 points for a UNC team whose entire starting lineup averages double figures. She also leads the team in 3-pointers made (47) and attempted (132).
Forward Janelle Bailey, UNC’s leading scorer, said Muhammad was “always in the gym” last season, so she’s glad to see the hard work pay off.
“She’s pretty much the X-factor,” Bailey said. “She comes at a time where we might need a steal, a spark on defense or, of course, on offense. She provides that, and we need it.”
After going for 20-plus three times in non-conference play, Muhammad has again flashed that scoring ability as of late. She had 17 points in a loss to Louisville and in wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia (on Thursday).
And on Sunday, she scored 14 against Clemson and made three 3-pointers on an afternoon the team (8-22) struggled from deep. Banghart said she’s come to expect such scoring from Bailey, Taylor Koenen and Shayla Bennett. When Muhammad does the same, UNC is “really hard to beat.”
Standing in a Carmichael Arena hallway, the senior whom teammates call Dino agreed. She’s still hashing out a few things on offense — most notably, she wants to keep playing “as free as possible” to avoid overthinking — but is overall quite satisfied with how this season, her first and last with the Tar Heels, has gone so far.
"It's been a long journey,” Muhammad said. “Sometimes, I feel like a freshman all over again. Everything is a part of the process. You’ve got fall in love with it, the good and the bad. I’ve just got to stick to my goals and what I want to accomplish with this team.”
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