Before Sunday afternoon, first-year guard Kayla McPherson hadn't played in a game for 800 days. A nagging knee injury from high school kept her sidelined all of last season, and a different lower-body injury kept her out for the beginning of this season.
The then-No. 15 Tar Heels’ 69-58 road win against Clemson marked the end of what head coach Courtney Banghart described as a “long road for this kid.” Against the Tigers, McPherson finally made her collegiate debut after persevering through two significant injuries.
“I've become really close with Kayla,” first-year guard Paulina Paris said. “(And) just seeing her every day on the court with the same attitude, I mean, I'm so proud of her.”
McPherson’s debut wasn’t just a feel-good story — she immediately showed flashes of why she was a highly touted recruit.
Late in the first quarter, McPherson exhibited the speed that made Banghart covet her commitment to UNC, blowing by her defender and hitting a tightly-contested layup attempt and drawing a foul. She then knocked down her free throw attempt to register her first points as a Tar Heel.
Several possessions later, McPherson stepped into a 3-point attempt off a screen and connected, demonstrating her three-level scoring ability.
“I haven’t played a game of basketball in 800 days, so of course, there were jitters,” McPherson said. “But I’ve been practicing with the team for two years now, it was kind of an easy go-ahead for me.”
While McPherson’s scoring dipped after making the 3-pointer, she found other ways to impact the game.
In the fourth quarter, McPherson attracted the help-side defender off a drive into the paint and slipped a pass through the teeth of the defense to junior forward Anya Poole for an easy bucket. The first-year also recorded two steals and two defensive rebounds and consistently used her speed to be one of the first players back on defense in transition.
“She can play on both ends (and) she's just really dynamic,” Banghart said. “She’s a special talent. I’ll never forget the day she committed to us; I knew what I was getting.”
With redshirt senior guard Eva Hodgson currently sidelined, McPherson’s addition to the rotation is a huge boost, especially in a conference where the Tar Heels still rank fourth despite having won each of their last seven ACC matchups.
Not only is McPherson’s addition to the lineup timely with Hodgson out of the rotation, but it also adds a dynamic player that can create offense for herself and others. McPherson’s shot creating and playmaking ability may be just what the Tar Heels’ bench needs, as the unit contributed single-digit points in six of the team’s nine ACC games before McPherson’s debut.
When Hodgson returns, the bench pairing of Paris, McPherson and Hodgson will provide UNC with a much-needed jolt of offense to support the Tar Heels’ leading scorers.
While it’s easy for fans and viewers to get caught up thinking about what McPherson’s addition to the rotation could bring to an already talented Tar Heels rotation, her coaches and teammates are just happy that she’s at the end of her long road to recovery.
“I just told my guys in the locker room that I won’t quickly forget how much they celebrated her genuinely when her name was called,” Banghart said. “She’s done a lot to be where she is, so I’m really glad that she’s fully a part of our group again.”
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