If one of the joys of sports is that we never know for sure how things will end – although many might say we really DO know how this women’s hoops season will end – certainly, one of the down sides is that they don’t always end the way we think they are “supposed” to.
Far too often, that’s been the case in this sport because of injuries, two in particular. The torn ACL, which is tops on the totem of hoops health horrors and the ruptured Achilles’ tendon, which sits just beneath the ACL – not because it isn’t as devastating, but rather because it’s not as frequent.
Every year, we have our list of “No, not her!!!!” ACL/Achilles’ injuries. This is not to say we’re not bummed by all injuries. It’s just that there is a particular “worst of the worst” kind: the ones that happen to a highly talented senior too far into her last year to redshirt.
After Kansas’ Danielle McCray tore her ACL in a simple practice drill Thursday, I wrote about it for ESPN.com on Friday. The Jayhawks played their first game without her on Sunday, and it was against archrival Kansas State, a program that KU has struggled with for much of the past decade.
Coming into the game, Kansas State had won 17 of the past 18 meetings, including a surprising 59-35 victory in Manhattan, Kan., on Jan. 9. So Sunday was the Jayhawks’ chance at some redemption … although simply picking up another crucial victory to try to build their NCAA tournament resume was motivation enough.
McCray is originally from Florida but moved with her family to Olathe, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City, and went to high school there. So while not a native Kansan, she was already versed in the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry before going to KU.
Unless they were to meet in the Big 12 tournament, Sunday’s game was her last against the Wildcats. And she had to watch it from the bench.
The night before the game, KU coach Bonnie Henrickson gave her a call and said, “It’s going to be hard tomorrow. You’ve got to expect that. I’m just asking for one thing: When your teammates look at you, they need to see strength and confidence.”
Henrickson got just what she requested.
“I thought she was great today,” Henrickson said. “Her voice – she was talking, she was smiling.”
And McCray was writing down, during the game, things she wanted to be sure to point out to her teammates. Words of advice and encouragement.
“The day that it happened, I was really down,” McCray said. “Then talking to my family and friends … I had a new mindset: I have to help my teammates out. There’s no need to be moping around; that’s not going to change the outcome of anything.
“It hit me before the game, and I shed a few tears. That’s just the love for the game. But I stayed strong throughout the game and was really into it.”
She told sophomore Aishah Sutherland to go hard to the boards and stay down in her defensive stance against the Wildcats’ best player, Ashley Sweat. She told freshman Monica Engelman, who replaced McCray in the starting lineup, to go over screens to keep track of K-State shooter Kari Kincaid.
McCray said she is not allowing herself to worry about how this affects her in the WNBA draft. Certainly, in those stomach-turning moments after hearing the diagnosis, a panic about her future ran through her head. Henrickson and the doctors quickly reassured her that her injury – which is an ACL tear, but not damage to the rest of her knee – was something that she could not only recover from, but could make her even stronger.
McCray was already strong … in fact that’s yet another thing about these damn ACL injuries: They seem to effect all body types. If there was anyone who looked – with her quad strength, especially – like she should be ACL-proof, it was McCray. But it just goes to show, there is no such thing.
So McCray, rather than trying to beat the Wildcats on the floor, had to try to help her teammates beat them with her words, body language and facial expressions. She had to give them something every time they looked at her. And she did that.
When Kansas closed out the 70-60 victory, the Jayhawks celebrated … but there were other feelings going on with them, of course.
“Even after the game, I had to hold it in,” said Sade Morris, McCray’s teammate, good friend and fellow senior. “I wanted to cry, because I wanted Danielle to feel the way I felt on the court after winning this game. That was our last time to play K-State.”
After news of her injury spread, McCray heard good wishes from players and coaches throughout the Big 12. Her Facebook inbox was jam-packed with messages, she got phone calls and texts. It was very moving to her.
So was the response of fellow seniors Sweat and Kincaid after Sunday’s game. It says a lot about how well McCray is liked – and about how classy K-State’s players are _ that even following a tough loss in what’s been a difficult season, the Wildcats hugged her and told her she was in their prayers.
Sweat and Kincaid know what it’s like to lose a senior teammate; it happened in their sophomore year when Kimberly Dietz tore her ACL in the Big 12 tournament.
“To see someone who loves the game and brings such a passion and does great things for their team – that’s the hardest thing, when they get hurt,” Sweat said. “I know when we heard about McCray, that’s just so devastating. (Big 12) Preseason player of the year, the heart of this Kansas team, a great player, a great person. It’s like, ‘Why is it her that has to go through that?’
“As a teammate of someone who gets injured, that’s some of the questions you ask yourself. As a team, you have to be there for that person. It’s a tough process rehabbing and coming back from that injury. It’s just so physically and emotionally taxing.”
And then, there is the real practicality of figuring out how you win games without that person. Kansas’ NCAA tournament quest was already made more difficult by Angel Goodrich’s knee injury last month. Now with McCray gone, the Jayhawks, 14-7 overall and 4-4 in the Big 12, are without their top scorer and their go-to player.
The latter is not something Henrickson sees one person replacing. To inspire her team, she references the 2008 Kansas men’s squad that won a national championship.
“Who was their go-to guy?” Henrickson said. “The guy that was open. The guy that had the best shot. And I think it will be that way for us.”
Even if the Jayhawks still had McCray, the remainder of their slate would be daunting. Especially since it still contains two matchups against unbeaten Nebraska, the first coming Wednesday in Lawrence.
Covering sports, I often find that when a player or team deals with adversity – an injury or unexpected upset loss – I flash back to how optimistic or confident they might have been before it happened. It reminds me that none of us ever do know for sure what’s coming. We just have to plan for things with the best of hopes.
It always brings to mind those lyrics from Garth Brooks’ “The Dance.”
And now, I’m glad I didn’t know,
The way it all would end,
The way it all would go.
Players realize there are some things out of their control, but they can’t help but “expect” that they’ll get a chance to finish what they started in college. Sadly, too many times, it takes one second of doing just a normal, average thing to lose that opportunity. It seems inexplicably cruel.
But once it happens, the best way to deal with it is the way McCray is approaching it. She still has a pro career to look forward to, and she will make something “good” out of this injury.
“Angel and I had an hour-long conversation,” McCray said of Goodrich, who is dealing with her second ACL. “I said, ‘What do you gain from it?’ And she said, ‘The passion.’ Her and I both were talking about how it will make us love the game even more. You never know how much you’ll miss something until it’s taken from you. And maybe this is a way for my basketball IQ to get better.”
*-MY VOTE: OK, I just decided after Mississippi’s triple-overtime win over LSU that the Rebels were going in. But the most of the leagues continue to have the kind of “round-robin parity” results that make ranking their teams really hard.
1. Connecticut, 2. Stanford, 3. Nebraska, 4. Tennessee, 5. Notre Dame, 6. Xavier, 7. Duke, 8. Ohio State, 9. West Virginia, 10. Texas, 11. Oklahoma, 12. Florida State, 13. Texas A&M, 14. Baylor, 15. Kentucky, 16. Oklahoma State, 17. Georgetown, 18. North Carolina, 19. Georgia Tech, 20. Iowa State, 21. Virginia, 22. Vanderbilt, 23. Mississippi, 24. Georgia, 25. St. John’s