- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TRENTON, N.J. -- In another world, Caroline Doty and Dymond Simon might have spent Tuesday night in the spotlight. In this world, they'll spend the Trenton Regional final between Connecticut and Arizona State (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) watching from opposite ends of the arena, powerless to alter the outcome of a game that will send one of their teams to the Final Four.
But for any team, coming within 40 minutes of a trip to the sport's biggest stage is a process that requires every individual to do her part for the collective whole. And as the cases of Doty and Simon illustrate for their respective teams, that includes players who can't play.
A starter in each of her first 17 games as a freshman on the nation's best team, Doty was the first of the two to go down. Stretching out for a pass just beyond her reach in the Huskies' Jan. 17 game against Syracuse, she landed awkwardly and immediately crumpled to the ground with a torn ACL. It was the same ligament she had torn playing soccer in high school, an injury which forced her to miss her senior season on the court. And again, it meant the end of her season.
"I think it's worse the second time, by far," Doty said. "Just because of the situation, one, and two, because you did go through it already. You know the struggles; you know what you're supposed to feel like. You know everything."
She had scored 17 points in the 19 minutes she played against the Orange before the injury, knocking down 5 of 11 3-pointers. The very fact she felt comfortable enough to take 11 shots from behind the arc in a single half said everything about how she had come from a brief, early slump to emerge as a third long-range option behind Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery and fourth scorer behind those two and Tina Charles.
In the weeks that followed, the hardest days came in the Big East tournament. As Geno Auriemma said at the time, it's one thing to sit and watch during the drudgery of regular-season trips to places like Milwaukee or Cincinnati. It's something else entirely to look at thousands of fans in the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., and realize a conference tournament championship is on the line and the NCAA tournament is around the corner.
It was during those days, Doty confirmed, that the wheels in her mind spun most furiously, the frustration of wanting to play pitted against the slow revolutions of a stationary bike in rehab. But with the support of veterans such as Kaili McLaren and small gestures such as habitual postgame hugs from Charles, the kid who grew up wanting to be part of the Huskies adjusted to a role on the team she never envisioned.
"I know it's been like an emotional roller coaster for her," Charles said. "Especially being a freshman and especially [when] you're a little girl, you're growing up and you want to go to Connecticut and you want your first year to be really good and have a good impression on everybody. And I think when she retore her ACL, I think it was like a downfall to her; she probably thought the world was coming to an end.
"But I just want her to always know that we're in her corner. After every game, I don't want her to think that just because she didn't play, she wasn't part of the win."
That contribution exists in more than a symbolic manner. In Doty's absence, fellow freshman Tiffany Hayes stepped forward, playing nearly 30 minutes a game down the stretch. Hayes has emerged as a kind of all-around star-in-waiting, introducing herself to March's national audience with 28 points, seven assists and five rebounds against Cal in the Sweet 16. And if the veteran players were there for Doty as mentors and moral support, her relationship with Hayes -- her roommate and friend -- was more symbiotic in nature.
"She helps me out a lot, just by talking to me, helping me out through anything I'm having problems with, whether it be in practice, school, whatever it is," Hayes said. "She just helps me out in any kind of way. And I just try to keep her involved in everything we do. Like if she's off to the side, working out or something, I'll holler at her and be like, 'Hey, I see you Caroline.'"
The sharp, searing sting of a ligament tear came later for Simon. Two days after the junior led ASU with 15 points in a win over Cal, she went down in a game against Stanford on March 7 and felt an all-too-familiar feeling. Little more than a month after the two-year anniversary of a torn ACL that forced her to miss Arizona State's march to a regional final during the 2006-07 season, she was done for the rest of this campaign.
"It hurt even worse this time," Simon recalled. "I was just cringing at my knee because I knew it was pretty much what had happened before. And I didn't want to think about it at the time, but I knew that my season was over and I just had to face the facts that I'd go back to being a cheerleader on the bench once again, for the second time."
With the injury fresh in her mind, there is still an element of hopeful denial in Simon's demeanor. Her surgery is scheduled for Friday (although she'll push it back if there is a trip to St. Louis looming), but she was out on the court before Sunday's game against Texas A&M, warming up with her teammates. Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne and team doctors assured her there was no chance they'd let her risk playing in live action, and friends such as USC's Jacki Gemelos -- herself a three-time victim of ACL tears -- told Simon what she needed to hear about playing it safe and thinking long term.
But it's hard to give up a role in the drama unfolding in her absence.
"[I'm] just pretty bummed that I can't be out there with my teammates, doing the thing that I love to do the most," Simon said. "But at the same time, I'm just so happy and proud of my teammates because they've come this far. And we've had a lot of doubters on the way, and as you saw, we won the last three games just on toughness and heart."
Where most injured players, including Doty, occupy a spot near the far end of a team's bench, Simon sits by the coaches, picking up information on why they call certain plays or certain defenses in a given situation. All the better to come back stronger as a senior.
She's in the middle of every huddle, offering encouragement. And when Briann January went down with an ankle injury against Florida State in the second round, it was Simon who went to work preparing her shoe while the trainers added layers of tape to the ankle.
With Simon out, January reclaimed the point guard duties that the younger player handled for much of this season. But just as January never really surrendered the role of distributor, leading the team and conference in assists, she and Simon -- who describes January as her big sister -- didn't surrender their partnership simply because one could no longer take her place on the court.
"Her attitude through this whole thing has been tremendous," January said. "She's one of my best friends, so we've been talking so much ever since she's been out. Her attitude and her competitive edge and just her fight has inspired our team. I mean, we are playing for her. She'd give anything to be on the court with us, and she's not. And her positive attitude about it and her belief in us gives us that confidence that we can do whatever."
And so Doty and Simon will watch from opposite ends of Sovereign Bank Arena, unable to play but doing all they can to will their teams to wins. It's not a happy ending, but it's a real ending, at least for this season. And accepting that has helped both contribute mightily to the matchup Tuesday night.
"More than anything you want to be out on the court," Doty said. "You worked your butt off in preseason and everything, and then to have a season-ending injury -- you want to be in the big show, you want to be playing.
"But on the reverse, our team is so fun to watch, they're so positive, they're so entertaining, and just being a part of it and being on the bench in order to celebrate? I mean, to celebrate is why we play and why we want to win. There's the downsides and the upsides, and I like the upsides more than the downsides."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.