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By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com
 

NEW ORLEANS -- Sometimes, your true friends will tell you stuff you don't want to hear. But it's what you need. So this past summer, Tennessee's Tasha Butts gave Ashley Robinson this hard message.

"Tasha told me, 'I can't stand to look at you, you look so sad,' '' Robinson said. "And I thought, 'If she's one of my best friends and she thinks that, then what do people who don't know me think?' ''

Ashley Robinson
Sidetracked by a torn ACL, and then bouts of self-pity, senior Ashley Robinson is back on track at Tennessee.
Robinson came to Tennessee as the No. 1 recruit in the country. Think of all the seniors we've marveled at the last four years: UConn's Diana Taurasi, Duke's Alana Beard, Stanford's Nicole Powell, Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde, Purdue's Shereka Wright, Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, Penn State's Kelly Mazzante, Houston's Chandi Jones ...

Robinson was considered the cream of that crop. Some people saw her in high school at South Grand Prairie in Texas and thought, "She could be the best college player ever.''

She was quick, graceful, instinctual, smart, athletic ... she was the whole package in a 6-foot-5 body. She was a can't-miss prospect. And she has regal presence about her, both in her appearance and her voice. She looks the part of a star.

Yet here we are before the national championship game -- and there is one senior superstar playing in New Orleans. That's Taurasi.

"And then you have me, who was a big recruit, and now I'm just a role player and really haven't produced like I think I should have,'' Robinson said.

If you wince upon reading that -- I'll admit I did when she said it -- it's both out of sympathy and a little surprise that a young woman could be so brutally frank in assessing her own performance.

I don't know many people, of any age, who can do that. But to hear Robinson talk a little more, you'll understand that the real feeling she should inspire is admiration.

The sad part of Robinson's story, of course, is that damn, stupid knee injury that has caused so much heartbreak in women's basketball. The ACL. Robinson tore hers in the summer after her freshman year, when she had averaged 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds and was establishing herself as a top player.

She did not take a year off. She missed the first seven games of her sophomore season, then returned to action. There was debate about that. Should she have redshirted? Would it have made a difference? Certainly, Robinson and the Tennessee staff thought they were all doing the right thing. And it's simply second-guessing to say that they weren't.

There are so many theories and so much on-going research with ACL injuries. People have a lot of different experiences with rehab. But one thing that seems common is that taller players can have a more difficult, longer rehab than shorter players. This is not universally true, but it did apply in Robinson's case.

With her long, slender body type, she has never been able to build up muscle mass very easily. So in her rehab, she kept thinking she was further along than she actually was. She'd believe she was making great progress, then realize she's wasn't where she wanted to be at all.

It was a little like being in a forest, lost, and thinking you're on the right path out. Then as you keep walking, you start to doubt everything. What if, in fact, you're not walking out ... but rather going deeper in?

The Tennessee coaches and trainers and her teammates tried to encourage and reassure Robinson. But the mental demons became worse than the physical ones. She lost confidence, and then she began, she admits, to feel sorry for herself.

"It was hard -- but the hardest part was staying positive,'' Robinson said. "I think I made my injury worse than it really was because of my attitude.''

She averaged 4.7 points and 2.6 rebounds as a sophomore. Her numbers were up last season, 5.8 and 5.4. But they weren't the stats of the player she -- and others -- had dreamed she'd be.

In last season's NCAA title-game loss to Connecticut, Robinson had three points, eight rebounds and no blocks. Her friend from AAU days, Taurasi, was the nation's best player, the Final Four MVP, the dream come true.

Robinson was genuinely very happy for Taurasi ... but very down about herself.

And so Butts told Robinson what she thought this summer. And the thing was, Robinson could see that for herself, too. She knew she needed to face it, accept it.

"This summer,'' Robinson said, "I had to take a step back and say, 'Come on, this isn't the worst thing that could have happened to you. You need to get a grip.' ''

She went home and visited her family, including younger sister Katrina, who plays basketball for Texas and whom Robinson calls, "my baby.'' Around them, she started to smile more. And she made a vow to herself: You must end the sadness. You have more time. Make your senior year the best you can make it.

Junior Shyra Ely said, "I think that she's really led this team.''

Robinson has started every game this season, averaging 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. She fouled out with six-plus minutes left in the Sweet 16 vs. Baylor and fought tears on the bench, trying not to discourage her teammates. They came through and won, and she got to keep playing.

Against LSU in the semifinals here, Robinson and Ely struggled offensively, combining to go 2-for-14 from the field. But ... Robinson's defense at the end helped force Temeka Johnson's turnover, which led to Tennessee's winning basket. Robinson got to keep playing again.

And now, there is one game left. Robinson might have envisioned it back when she was 13 and first met and befriended Taurasi on the AAU circuit. For that matter, Taurasi might have had the same vision: The two of them as the best in the country, fighting for national championship as seniors.

It didn't work out exactly like that, but the battle still will happen. And no matter the outcome, Robinson and Taurasi will remain good pals.

"People would think, she plays at Tennessee and I play at UConn, how could we even be friends?'' Taurasi said. "But we've maintained that relationship. To see her and how she struggled and had a hard time with her injuries -- and knowing what kind of person she is -- it hit hard for me and I felt bad for her.

"I know how much she wants to be a great player, and she has it in her. I think she's proven it these last two months, what impact she could have. I'm probably the happiest person for her.''

And so is another close friend, Butts.

"If we can get a national championship, or she has an outstanding game,'' Butts said, "she will leave with no regrets.''

That would be the best ending, certainly. But Robinson already knows that things don't always work like you want them to. So regardless of the championship-game result, she will take away something that she can use the rest of her life.

"I feel like the success I had this year was because I worked for it,'' Robinson said. "Even if it's not exactly what I wanted, I feel like I worked hard this year. I'm positive now. This has been worthwhile, because I learned what it was to work hard.''

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.



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