By R.L. Bynum
With Kayla McPherson and Paulina Paris in Carolina’s backcourt for years to come, the Tar Heels will create nightmares for opponents with three versatile lead guards.
Anybody who didn’t already view No. 15 UNC as a national contender should reconsider as quickly as McPherson can whip by a defender on a drive.
The wait for McPherson, a talented redshirt freshman, to make her college debut was long, but her impact was immediate on a day that Carolina navigated past a rough third quarter to earn its seventh consecutive ACC victory. In the Tar Heels’ 69–58 win at Clemson, freshman Paris put up season-highs of 22 points, six 3-pointers and five steals in her first career start.
With those two and junior Deja Kelly, Coach Courtney Banghart has many ways to frustrate opponents since all three guards will sometimes have the ball in their hands, and they all can all make plays.
“They can attack it from different areas,” Banghart said. “Makes us harder to press, makes it harder to guard, makes us fresher. … All three of them have to see the game as a lead guard, and they all have to score, so we just get better with [McPherson] in the rotation.”
The Tar Heels (16–5, 7–3 ACC) are one game out of first place (see standings below) in the ACC after conference leaders Duke and Notre Dame both lost on the road. But they had to weather foul trouble, being outscored 22–7 in the third quarter and seeing a 22-point lead cut to four before pulling away in the final period.
Carolina fans got a glimpse into the impact McPherson, ESPN’s No. 17-ranked player in the Class of 2021 and the No. 4 point guard, will have on an already talented team. She collected eight points, a 3-pointer and two steals in 17 minutes. She not only is quick on drives to the basket but has perimeter shooting skills.
She said it felt “super” to finally play again.
“It felt really good,” McPherson said. “I’m just really excited to be finally back playing basketball, especially with people like Paulina Paris. Playing in a North Carolina jersey was a dream of mine, and I’ve finally been able to fulfill it.”
McPherson missed last season rehabilitating a torn right ACL suffered in high school, then injured her left knee during practice before this season. She entered a game for the first time in 800 days with 4:39 left in the first quarter and scored her first collegiate points on a driving, twisting three-point play 2½ minutes later, adding a 3-pointer two minutes after that.
“There were jitters, but I’ve been practicing with the team,” McPherson said. “I’ve been around the team for two years now. So I was nervous, but I was also really excited to get out there with them and play with them. I know how they play. I’ve studied them. I’ve been in practice with them. So it was kind of an easy go-ahead for me.”
It was the first time the public had seen McPherson’s talents since she put on a show in the Smith Center at the Late Night 3-point shooting competition in October 2021.
Banghart called McPherson a “special talent” and said she’d never forget the day McPherson committed to Carolina, knowing what she was getting, even though her debut was delayed.
“This kid plays the game with an incredible passion, and so she’s vocal with her game,” Banghart said. “She can play on both ends. She’s just really dynamic, but I think it’s the combination of the passion and how dynamic she is that Carmichael is gonna love, and she’s like Paulina. They know they belong.”
Banghart said the staff only wanted McPherson to play when she could sustain the load of a competitive college season. She didn’t want her to practice or play one day and then need three days off.
“It’s not worth it,” Banghart said of having her back when she wasn’t ready. “The kid wants to play. We’re not going to slow-roll this. As soon as she was able to not be slow-rolled, we wanted test her and see if she could do it.”
Banghart praised her sports performance team for working hard to help McPherson return and making scientific calculations, such as determining when her force and acceleration were equal, to advise the coaching staff about when she was ready to play.
UNC fans are finally seeing the quickness that Paris has seen in practice for weeks.
“She’s one of the quickest guards I’ve ever seen,” Paris said of McPherson. “She can shoot, she can get to the basket, she plays defense and she just has a different type of energy to her that is unmatched.”
Paris said she was impressed as she watched the final stages of McPherson’s road back.
“I’ve become really close with Kayla and just seeing her every day on the court with the same attitude,” said Paris, who was told on Friday that she would start in place of Eva Hodgson, who missed her second consecutive game. “I’m so proud of her, and it’s a blessing to play with her. I am so happy for her that she came out today and did what she did, and she’s back, so that helps us a lot.”
Paris scored as many 3-pointers as Clemson and needed 10 fewer attempts.
Kennedy Todd-Williams scored 10 of her 15 points in the first quarter and had six rebounds. Alyssa Ustby (11 rebounds and three steals) and Kelly (six rebounds, six assists and two steals) each added nine points.
Carolina forced four turnovers on Clemson’s first four possessions and scored the game’s first eight points on fast breaks in the first 2½ minutes. Todd-Williams scored 10 of Carolina’s first 14 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, to quickly earn her 18th double-figure scoring game of the season. The second 3 gave UNC a 14–4 lead with 5:30 left in the first quarter.
McPherson’s 3-pointer with 21 seconds left put Carolina up 20–9 lead after one quarter despite going scoreless for nearly 2½ minutes.
Clemson (13–10, 4–7) didn’t have more points than Todd-Williams (13–10) until Daisha Bradford’s 3-pointer midway through the second quarter.
By the time the Tar Heels scored their initial second-quarter point on an Ustby free throw with 4:45 left, the lead was down to 21–13. That started a 16–4 UNC run to end the first half, fueled by three Paris 3-pointers, to take a 36–17 halftime lead.
“She’s a really good basketball player,” Banghart said of Paris. “She’s tough. She stays locked in. She’s what we need when we need it. So, we needed a lot of it today. And then she brought it.”
After a Paris 3-pointer pushed the lead to 22, a 10–2 Clemson run chopped the Tar Heels’ lead to 14. After a Paris jumper, the Tigers scored 16 consecutive points to slice UNC’s lead to 41–36 on Bradford’s layup with 2:08 left in the third quarter.
Being held to seven points in the third quarter, a season-low for a period, left Carolina with a 43–39 lead entering the final period. However, Carolina regained control with a 15–5 run, going up 61–46 on a Kelly jumper with 5:03 remaining as the Heels shot 66.7% in the final quarter.
Bradford led Clemson with 14 points and Amari Robinson added 10.
NOTES — Carolina returns home for the first time in 14 days to face Virginia at 6 p.m. Thursday (regional sports networks). The Cavaliers (14–8, 3–8), who have lost four consecutive games after Sunday night’s 72–60 home loss to Virginia Tech, lost to UNC in Charlottesville on Jan. 12 70–59. … It was the fifth time this season that UNC has never trailed in a game, but the first time it’s happened in ACC play. … Hodgson made the trip to Clemson after not being with the team for its Thursday win at Pittsburgh victory but wasn’t in uniform. … Carolina beat Clemson for the sixth consecutive game and 11th time in the last 12 games to push the Tar Heels’ lead in the series to 61–28. … The Tar Heels’ seven-game ACC win streak is the longest regular-season streak since winning 17 consecutive league games, going 14–0 in the 2007–08 season when Ivory Latta was a senior, and winning their first three games in the 2008–09 season. … It was the first three-game ACC road win streak for UNC under Banghart. … With the win, Banghart equaled the win total of her first season UNC season in 2019–20 when the Tar Heels went 16–14. … Carolina is 10–1 when leading at halftime. … Paris becomes the fifth Tar Heel this season to score at least 20 points in a game. She also led Carolina in the win over Notre Dame with 16 points. … The three teams directly ahead of No. 15 UNC in last week’s AP Top 25 poll lost, including No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 13 Michigan each losing twice. No. 12 Virginia Tech lost to Duke. No. 2 Ohio State lost three times, and No. 8 UCLA lost twice.
No. 15 UNC 69, Clemson 58
UNC lineup combinations
|No. 10 Notre Dame||15–3||24–4|
|No. 11 Duke||14–4||24–5|
|No. 9 Virginia Tech||14–4||24–4|
|No. 23 Florida State||12–6||23–8|
|No. 22 North Carolina||11–7||20–9|
No. 9 Virginia Tech 61, No. 22 North Carolina 59
No. 10 Notre Dame 76, Georgia Tech 53
No. 23 Florida State 61, Wake Forest 60
Syracuse 85, Pittsburgh 55
Louisville 71, Miami 50
Clemson 79, Virginia 69
No. 11 Duke 77, N.C. State 62
No. 22 North Carolina 45, No. 11 Duke 41
No. 10 Notre Dame 68, Louisville, noon, ESPN3
Miami 84, Virginia 75
Boston College 73, Wake Forest 63
Clemson 74, No. 23 Florida State 61
N.C. State 68, Pittsburgh at 63
No. 9 Virginia Tech 65, Georgia Tech 52
End of regular season
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications