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St. Louis’ Kyla McMakin discusses highs and lows of playing college ball

The guard enters her fifth season with more than 2,200 points to her name

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Kyla McMakin (left) helped lead Saint Louis to its first Atlantic-10 tournament championship in her first season with the team.
Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Kyla McMakin has established herself as a lethal score at not one, but two different schools.

Over the course of three seasons at Longwood, she averaged 18.3 points per game. She then transferred to Saint Louis, where she posted 17.2 points per contest last season.

The three-time All-Big South First Team honoree notched 1,000 career points in just 54 games, the fastest to do so in Longwood program history. She became the program’s all-time leading scorer during her junior year.

McMakin’s scoring prowess led to team success for the Lancers as she helped also lead them to their first-ever Big South Championship and NCAA Tournament. She played an integral part in Longwood winning its opening round game against Mount St. Mary’s.

In her first year the Billikens, the guard helped lead SLU to its first-ever A10 Tournament championship. She started all 35 games for the Billikens last season. She became the 10th active player in NCAA Division I women’s basketball to score 2,000 career points, which she eclipsed against Davidson.

McMakin also broke SLU’s single-game record by scoring 40 points against VCU.

As she prepares for her fifth year of college basketball, McMakin spoke with Mid-Major Madness’ Carrie Berk as she reflects on her successes and challenges, including what it’s like dealing with the pressures of playing basketball with bipolar disorder.

Carrie Berk: What was it like being a part of the first conference championship teams at two different schools?

Kyla McMakin: I’m forever connected to both schools. It was rewarding because it was something done for the first time. I also always find myself in the underdog position, so it felt like winning times 100.

CB: Why do you consider yourself an underdog?

KM: Not a lot of people know, but in high school, I wasn’t recruited by anyone. Longwood was my first DI offer, and I didn’t get any attention until I started playing there. I had to work to prove that I belonged and that I wanted to achieve something, even though I didn’t have all the resources to do it.

CB: What do you believe is the key to being a leader in your sport?

KM: You can want to be a great player, but great players need great teammates. Even though I’m a big scorer, I want my teammates to score. I want them to play at their highest level because that helps me play at my highest. I try to build confidence in my teammates because there are times that I’m not playing my best and it takes pressure off of me when there’s at least 12 other people who can pick it up.

CB: What is your greatest asset as a player?

KM: I’m very big on mental health. I’ve trained my body over the past two years, and I’ve been trying to train my mind too. Mental health is becoming more popular with all the sports psychologists.

CB: What does mental health mean to you?

KM: I have bipolar disorder. I wasn’t diagnosed until college. It was very difficult to go to practice, go to classes and still deal with that. I continue to work on my mental health so it doesn’t affect me as much as it did. At one point, I didn’t even play basketball. Physically, I can do anything, but if my mind’s not there, I won’t accomplish what I want to.

CB: Is it ever difficult to take care of your mental health with your busy sports schedule?

KM: I’m a computer science major, so it’s a lot of planning between sports and coding. I ask my coaches to assign me study hall hours so that I can get things done. I’m already planning for the rest of the school year.

CB: What does your schedule look like?

KM: I’ll practice every day and lift almost every day. We’re actually in our TMC era right now, which is Toughness with the Marine Corps. Every Friday, we have a 6 a.m. workout with Marines, just like bootcamp. We run, carry ammo cans and pick each other up. There are Marines yelling in our faces. We work as a team and try not to reach a level of frustration where we fall apart.

CB: How have your basketball skills developed over the past four years playing in college?

KM: Freshman year was the most free that I played. I actually didn’t shoot 3s my whole high school career, so it came out of nowhere. I wasn’t too structured and didn’t overthink anything, like missing a layup. Sophomore year, I felt more of a weight to keep up an image. I wasn’t playing basketball because I was passionate about it. But after that year, I’ve learned that there are ways to still keep the joy in basketball.

CB: Amid all the competition, how do you stay grounded and still enjoy the sport?

KM: I don’t think about myself. If I see a teammate struggling, even though I’m struggling, I focus all my energy on helping that teammate. At the end of the day, I have to remember that this is one out of thousands of games that I’ll play. I’ll want to win and do everything I can in the moment, but if I’m not shooting well, I can still run fast and play hard defense. If I’m not playing defense, I can still get back on offense in score. I try to have the mentality of being impactful in the game in any way I can.

CB: What is one skill you have yet to conquer that you would like to keep working on?

KM: Dribbling. The harder and better you score, the harder the defense is. I’m working on being able to handle all types of pressure coming at me while still keeping my dribble and being able to tack off that score or pass anything off that. When you’re competing at a higher level, you’re going to get pushed. The best thing to do is to score to knock them off their game. All of my workouts consist of me getting hit with a pad or pushed by my coaches. It’s so I can get used to the contact and hit the harder shots when I’m being knocked around.

CB: Why did you decide to transfer to Saint Louis after Longwood?

KM: Longwood is the only school who took a chance on me at first, so I’m very loyal to them. That team helped me grow as both a player and woman. It was difficult to move because I’m very close to my family, and it was 14 hours away, but I thought it would be better for my career.

CB: What is the main difference between your time on both teams?

KM: I’m competing at a higher level at Saint Louis. At any point, someone on either my team or the other team could post 20 points. Saint Louis is more fast paced. There’s more quickness and talent on the team. It was harder than I thought it would be to adjust for defense. I don’t want to just be the catch-and-shoot player. I want to be an all-around player.

CB: Saint Louis has a rich basketball history. Who are some previous players you look up to?

KM: I’m a huge Celtics fan. I was a huge fan of Jayson Tatum as a kid. [He practiced] here in the arena this weekend, so I was excited to get a chance to meet him. I also look up to Kobe Bryant. I didn’t watch much of him growing up, but during freshman year, everyone called me Kobe. I watched everything about him on YouTube to learn his mind and how he played.

CB: What is your pre-game ritual?

KM: I do the same thing every game. I never leave the arena. If I go back home, I’ll lose focus. I don’t care if we shoot around at 9 a.m. and the game is not until 6 p.m. I also do a lot of stretching and meditating. I’ll stand in the shower, put my headphones in and meditate for 10 minutes before every game. That’s how I calm my nerves.

CM: Can you share a memorable game-winning shot or significant moment you’ve had on the court?

KM: The game against Campbell that wound up on ESPN Top 10. As a kid, I always wanted to be on there. It was my first-ever buzzer beater. Even talking about it now, I still get goosebumps.

CB: What are your post-grad basketball plans?

KM: I plan on going to the Combine to work my way to the WNBA. I definitely want to play after college. That’s why I’m taking very good care of my body. I want to have a long career.