At first, Kayla McPherson’s Carmichael Arena debut wasn’t going so well.
Six minutes into Thursday night’s women’s basketball bout between North Carolina and Virginia, the Tar Heels hadn't scored a field goal, they’d turned the ball over four times and trailed the shorthanded Cavaliers by three points.
As junior guard Deja Kelly missed her third shot of the night, head coach Courtney Banghart called McPherson up from the bench.
UNC needed a spark from its redshirt first-year guard, but McPherson didn’t provide one immediately. In fact, she appeared jittery playing at home for the first time, committing two turnovers in her first two touches. But North Carolina eventually defeated Virginia, 73-62, and in just 18 minutes of action, McPherson had bounced back with 14 points and four assists — both team-highs.
So, what changed?
“If we play badly, we all have each others’ backs,” junior forward Anya Poole said. “That’s what helps us every single day to be vulnerable, to be upfront with each other and to be excited for everything we’re gonna go through.”
There’s an element of trust that Banghart preaches to her players, that they should believe in each others’ abilities the same way the coaching staff has confidence in them.
So that when players like McPherson — who on Sunday played her first game of basketball in over 800 days — step onto the court, they’re able to thrive off the team’s supportive culture.
“We trust them because they put a lot of work in to be ready when called upon,” Banghart said.
With just under two minutes to go in the first quarter, McPherson caught the ball and exploded right for a contested layup. She immediately began to press Virginia guard Taylor Valladay, who dribbled off her left foot and had to pass the ball to avoid a double dribble.
When Valladay got the ball back, McPherson nodded her head up and down, daring Valladay to try and beat her off the dribble. When Valladay passed up the opportunity once again, McPherson used her speed to bring double-team pressure, recovering back to Valladay just as quickly.
Seconds later, junior guard Kennedy Todd-Williams found McPherson in transition on the right wing. Without hesitating, McPherson stepped into a long two-pointer, drilling the shot over Valladay.
“We were much better over 94 feet,” Banghart said. “Kayla helps us there a lot.”
But McPherson was just getting warmed up.
For the rest of the game, the highly touted recruit showcased her shot-making abilities. McPherson’s twitchy style of dissecting defenders was on full display, as she sank a pair of 3-pointers using a one-dribble pullback to create separation.
McPherson also demonstrated exceptional court vision, launching a one-hand bomb off the dribble to junior forward Alyssa Ustby for a fastbreak score midway through the third quarter and slipping a pick-and-roll bounce pass to junior forward Alexandra Zelaya for an easy layup midway through the fourth.
“I just think it’s so fun getting other people shots,” McPherson said. “I mean, yeah, I can make my own shots. I can make myself open. But just getting people like Anya and (Zelaya) open is so fun.”
By the end of the night, McPherson looked right at home. With another dynamic guard in Banghart’s rotation, the Tar Heels can take their balanced scoring attack to new heights.
A tough road slate at Louisville, N.C. State and Duke stand in the way between the No. 11 Tar Heels and the end of the regular season. If UNC wants to keep building upon its eight-game ACC streak, McPherson’s spark off the bench may be critical down the stretch.
Even though she only has two collegiate games under her belt, it seems like that’s already been more than enough to shake off any rust.
“I just needed one game,” McPherson said. “Coach trusts me to do what I do, so I just go out there and do that.”
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