Despite tragedy and injuries, ASU triumphs

It was a year ago at this time that, as everything felt like it was falling apart for Arizona State, the Sun Devils were, in fact, coming together.

ASU's 2006 Thanksgiving trip was to the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. The Sun Devils were set for a marquee matchup with Rutgers on Saturday, Nov. 25. But the family of senior post Aubree Johnson woke up to tragedy that morning. Her 15-year-old brother, Jordan, died in his sleep from an enlarged heart.

He and his parents were there in the Virgin Islands to watch Aubree and Arizona State play. Rutgers, fully understanding the devastated Sun Devils couldn't possibly compete that day, agreed to cancel the game.

And in one of those amazing things in sports you can't script or predict, Rutgers and Arizona State met later, almost four months to the day, in the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.

By then, ASU also had its freshman point guard, Dymond Symon, sidelined by a knee injury. The Sun Devils' NCAA run ended against the Scarlet Knights … but the season of big highs and terrible lows had one more unbearable punch to throw at Johnson and ASU: Johnson's father Tom was killed and her mother Cyndie was injured in a motorcycle accident in April.

Now, as ASU guard Jill Noe starts her sixth season in Tempe -- she also has quite a story of perseverance, coming back from two ACL injuries -- she thinks about the role the sport played in all the Sun Devils' lives.

"Basketball is a game we come in and play every day -- it separates us from all the bad things that are happening in our lives," Noe said. "You know, we're a very close-knit team, and all have each other's backs. The support system at ASU is just great. It's allowed us to get through all the things we've endured."

Still, Noe realizes that so much of what happened is still very fresh. It will be hard to fully put it in perspective until more time has passed.

"Yeah, I will definitely look back and think, 'Wow, how did we make it through that?' " she said. "Especially because it's just surreal to think that one individual can suffer so much tragedy in such a short amount of time.

"Aubree has had to endure things that are unfathomable. I don't know how I would have been able to cope as well as she has. She, her mom and sister are amazing people; they've shown so much strength through everything. I know 20 years from now, I'll think, 'Wow, I was able to share my life with them and take what they had to offer and apply it in my life.' "

In fact, there is someone even closer to Noe who has helped her gain that kind of insight. Her twin sister, Whitney, has Neurofibromatosis type 2, a genetic disorder that causes growth of noncancerous tumors in the nervous system, the brain and on the spine.

"She played basketball all the way up until high school, and then she had really bad headaches and just couldn't do it anymore," Noe said. "She is definitely my hero. Every time I think I have an ache or pain, I just think about her in high school when she'd always tough it out.

"Everyone thinks I'm so tough, and they'll say, 'I don't know how you bounced back from those knee surgeries.' And I'll say, 'You know, my sister has bounced back from four brain surgeries and having to live her life not knowing if she's going to need to have another one.' It puts things in perspective for me."

Jill and Whitney are fraternal twins, whose obvious closeness but different appearance makes strangers assume they are best friends, not sisters.

"She has blonde hair and blue eyes," laughs Noe, a dark-eyed brunette. "We don't look alike. But we're twins, through and through."

Just look at Noe's inside left wrist, and you'll see further proof. The word "twins" is tattooed there.

"And she has one in exactly the same place," Noe said. "We got them this summer."

Noe came to ASU in 2002 out of Wilsonville High in Oregon. She started 29 games as a rookie and led the Sun Devils in scoring that season at 12.6 points per game. But in October of 2003, she suffered a torn ACL in her left knee. This came after she'd had a very strong showing on the team's preseason tour in Australia.

She rehabbed … but then in June 2004 tore the left ACL again. For the second season in a row, Noe was forced to the sidelines. Some people would have given up the game then. Noe didn't consider it.

She came back and averaged 7.8 points for the 2005-06 season. The Sun Devils were upset by Utah in the second round of the NCAA Tournament -- which didn't seem like such an upset when the Utes almost made it all the way to the Final Four.

It set up a hungry, focused and talented ASU team for 2006-07. And a year ago this week, right up until that terrible Saturday morning in the Virgin Islands, the season appeared as if it could play out like a dream.

Instead, it became a test of character, a display of the power of love to combat grief, a tribute to teammates holding up one of the their own in her saddest days. And on top of all of that, it was a story of winners. Tennessee took the national championship in 2007. But did anybody have a more triumphant season than Arizona State?

This year, the Sun Devils' Thanksgiving trip is to Cancun, Mexico, where they will face Oklahoma and Iowa. ASU is trying to replace the leadership and post skills of Johnson and her best friend, Emily Westerberg, who finished their senior seasons as first-team All-Pac 10 honorees.

Simon is back from her injury but still getting comfortable. Post transfers Sybil Dosty and Lauren Lacey are learning as fast as they can. Guard Danielle Orsillo, who had a terrific game (21 points) in the Sun Devils' loss at North Carolina to open the season, is expected out for the next month because of a bone bruise on her knee.

That leaves Noe and Briann January as the team's leaders. A lot of weight is on them. But Noe, who averaged 8.9 points last season, is fine with that. All she has to do is think about the last 12 months and know that the Sun Devils can deal with anything.

"I was satisfied in what we did last season; we went further than Arizona State's program ever had and we were an amazing group," Noe said. "Then Rutgers went on to the national championship game. They are a great team. If we had to lose, that was a team you don't mind as much losing to. They were a step ahead of us all game.

"But the feeling afterward was, 'Wow, we've come this far; we made it to this level.' And hopefully, everyone will respect that. You don't get anywhere by lowering your standards. We keep raising ours."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.