McMakin: The Lancers’ patient problem-solver
Kyla McMakin is the on-court leader of a major turnaround in the Longwood University women’s basketball program that has unfurled across the last two-and-a-half seasons and coincided with the beginning of Rebecca Tillett’s tenure as head coach.
The Lancers went 3-27 in 2018-19, Tillett’s first season, but that merely seems like a table-setting year now.
The banquet officially began during the 2019-20 campaign, with Longwood going 12-18 overall, including 8-12 in the Big South Conference.
McMakin, then a true freshman guard, averaged 18.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, two steals and 1.7 assists per game to lead the way.
With 10 games left in the 2020-21 regular season, the Lancers are 8-7 overall and 7-3 in the Big South. This would currently give them a No. 3 seed in the conference tourney.
McMakin has continued to lead the way as a sophomore, averaging 18.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 steals across 15 games while shooting 88.1% from the free-throw line.
But like last season, McMakin’s performances have been strengthened by standout play from teammates. This season, that includes junior forward Akila Smith, sophomore guard Anne-Hamilton LeRoy, redshirt freshman guard Adriana Shipp and senior point guard Tra’Dayja Smith.
Longwood has gone from averaging 67.8 points per game last season to 70.2 points per game this season.
“I’m happy where we are,” McMakin said. “I’m happy with how everything is going.”
The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unusual 2020-21 season in some ways. Instead of having played everyone in the conference once by this point, the Lancers have played half the league twice — in back-to-back games each time — to reduce travel.
Both Tillett and McMakin affirmed this schedule of back-to-backs has been hard on players’ bodies, but McMakin noted the Lancers have kept in condition and kept the injury count low.
And Longwood has been bolstered by a freshman group full of confidence, which has impressed McMakin.
“That’s how you really make a statement is being confident,” she said.
After a remarkable freshman season of her own, McMakin has continued to inspire Tillett’s confidence in her due to her continuing growth as a player.
“I think one of the neatest things about Kyla right now is just the maturity that comes with being a second-year college athlete,” Tillett said. “And of course, we relied on her heavily last year, so sometimes your development is sped up, right? When you play a ton of minutes as a freshman, your development gets a little bit of a head start.
“But I think the maturity in her game, the way that she looks at the game, the conversation she has with teammates or coaches around helping us win,” Tillett said, “as a coach, I often get defensive if people think of her as only a scorer. She’s so much more than that.”
Tillett acknowledged that obviously she and her staff call a lot of plays for McMakin as a scorer, but people who are not on the inside of the program do not understand McMakin’s mindset in those situations.
“She’ll make the best play, and that doesn’t always mean she’s scoring it,” Tillett said. “She’s seeing what develops, and she makes that play. That’s something so special from a coaching standpoint and (for) teammates too.”
The coach noted that as the second half of the 2019-20 season developed, McMakin was gaining more and more defensive attention, and this season, she started the year with it. Tillett has done her best to prepare McMakin.
“It starts in practice,” McMakin said. “I’m guarded heavily. My coach tells my teammates, ‘She doesn’t get the ball,’ basically, and that’s very much game-like, so I practice that a lot, and it obviously helps me more in the game so that even if I am getting guarded pretty heavy — and there’s some really good defenders in our league — I’m able to still produce and do what I can.”
This is where making the best play can lead to starring moments for her teammates, which, in turn, gives McMakin more opportunities in the long run.
“The great thing about her other teammates elevating their offensive game (is it) makes it more difficult for the (defensive) schemes to work on Kyla,” Tillett said. “So I think that’s what we’re about anyway is that we want to share the ball, and we want five women on the floor at all times that are dangerous to our opponent offensively.
“And I think that’s been a positive for Kyla’s game — the elevation of Akila’s play, the continued consistency of Anne and (Tra’Dayja), and then you see in moments from Adriana Shipp, who’s a redshirt freshman, of drawing some defensive attention as well.”
But aside from selflessness and talented teammates, what is it about McMakin that has allowed her to be such a success at the college level? She certainly has not been able to lean upon the familiarity of a position. Though she is a 5-foot-11-inch shooting guard for the Lancers, she was something very different for the Ocean Lakes High School Dolphins in Virginia Beach.
“In high school, I think I was more like Akila, like a rebounder, finish(ing) around the basket, believe it or not,” McMakin said. “I didn’t shoot threes that well. I kind of had a different role in high school, and I was taller than most people, so I was around the basket more. And then coming to college, I’m honestly on the smaller side.”
She said she was lucky to make the adjustment.
Tillett said what makes McMakin so good can be found in parallels between the sophomore’s academic and athletic careers.
“What some people might not know about her is she’s a computer science major, which is a field that’s dominated by men, and she was drawn to that field because she wants to be a minority female in that field who’s really successful,” Tillett said. “And I think Kyla just does not shy away from any challenge.
“Obviously those who have watched her play a lot have seen her hit really big shots, including the recent game-winner at Campbell (University), but plenty of other big shots that either get a run generated or keep an opportunity for us to stay in a game — she’s done that for us a lot,” Tillett said. “So I think she’s a student of the game, and that’s why I bring up the computer science piece. She’s a great student in the classroom, and then you add to that she studies the game of basketball and studies different players, and that always translates for student-athletes in the practice and the game setting.”
McMakin agreed there is connective tissue between computer science and how she approaches basketball. She explained computer science largely involves problem-solving.
“What is going to work for (us) as a team in order for us to win is the same as what’s going to work for this (computer) program to work,” she said. “So there’s definitely some connections with that. I do think problem-solving or the ability to overcome obstacles is what makes you really good at sports. I think that being able to do that academically and sports-wise helps me a lot.”
McMakin also noted patience has been key to her success.
“I do think playing a game slower than what is actually going on helps me a lot,” she said. “I think if I do rush, that’s when I start to struggle. So just being calm and letting the game come to me is what’s really helped me be successful scoring, defensively — just taking what I can get from the game and adapting to it instead of trying to just force what I can from it.”
Though she’s successful, she is naturally on the quest to get even better. With what remains of the 2020-21 season, she said she wants to improve her defense.
“I want to be a great player all around,” she said, adding that her role model is the late NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. “He was very good on both ends. How he could defend a person and all that, I really want to be good at that.”
With her team above .500 in the latter half of the regular season and looking like it could have a chance of winning the Big South and advancing beyond that, McMakin said the Lancers are confident and ready.
“We have a good team,” she said. “We have a team full of scorers — like, literally a team full of scorers — and we’re determined and ready to go.”