WINTER GARDEN — A neck covered with tattoos rises from the collar of Karissa Harris' West Orange basketball uniform.
The ink starts under her chin and cascades past an outline of a star in the center of her collarbone. The word "loyalty'' is scrawled across the top of her chest.
A tattoo of her mother's name stands out, just below her left ear.
"I was in the house at the time when it happened," Harris said. "I didn't hear anything. When I woke up, that's when I found out.
"He just beat her to death."
Harris was in eighth grade when her mother, Demetria Harp, was killed by her stepfather in 2009, propelling her into a tumultuous period filled with drinking, fighting and disciplinary problems at school.
Her future looked bleak. Not anymore.
Harris is poised to become the first member of her family to go to college. She is a qualifying test score from possibly landing a scholarship to play for St. Petersburg College, and she has not been suspended from school in nearly two years.
"A lot made me change, but one of the reasons was to make my mom proud," said Harris, who lives in Winter Garden with her aunt. "Just to leave the environment I'm in, it will be an amazing feeling. And to try new things, different things and be on my own."
West Orange coach Misty Cox has known Harris since her freshman season, when she was kicked off varsity after a school suspension.
"She's matured into someone we can count on," Cox said. "Her mom was her rock. The issues she had were because she wasn't able to deal with [losing her]."
Harris didn't think that night was any different than the others. It was eight days before Christmas, and she turned up the volume on her TV to drown out the usual yelling.
Her mother's four-year relationship with Cedric Harp always had been a violent one, Harris said. She heard Demetria call the police on him at least twice and regularly jumped between her mother and the 6-foot-4, 300-pound man.
"I told my mom not to marry him," Harris said. "I think the reason he did all that was because my mom finally realized it wasn't going to work. She didn't want to be with him anymore, and I guess he couldn't take that."
Harp, whose criminal history with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement fills 20 pages and dates to 1993, pleaded no contest to manslaughter after the family said an autopsy showed Demetria had existing health conditions, including an enlarged heart.
He served six months in county jail before he was released on probation, court records show.
"I used to see him, and I would try to fight him every time," said Harris, whose fear and anger led her to carry a crowbar around for a while. "I know you're not supposed to hate anyone, but I hate him.
"I hate him."
Last year, after several more arrests, Harp was sentenced to more than 10 years in state prison.
Harris' anger faded, but her troublemaking ways — she once stole a bicycle when she was 10 years old so she didn't have to walk — worsened after her mom died.
"She broke down, always was crying and in her mood where she didn't want to talk to us," said Harris' aunt, Chantina Hayes. "It took her a while to come around. She has her moments now, but she's a whole lot better than when it first happened."
Back then, Harris' temper would flare at the slightest indiscretion. A classmate who once stepped on her shoe learned that pretty quickly. Around the same time, her tattoos multiplied and she began wearing two gold snap-on teeth.
"It's not a good feeling to not have a mother, because having a mother is like the best feeling in the world," said Harris, whose mom had several tattoos and gold teeth.
"I felt like no one understood me."
Her younger brother, Gerald Taylor, did. He was in the house that night.
"I told her I'll always be there for her," said Taylor, a sophomore at West Orange. "I was always the good one. She used to be really bad, but she's changed a lot. She's doing all her schoolwork now and hanging around the right people. She's been surprising me."
Basketball was a big part of that change. When she finally was invited back to varsity her junior year, she was ready to listen.
"[My coaches] opened my mind about life,'' said Harris, who averaged a team-high 15 rebounds per game and was the only senior on the Warriors' roster this season. "I realized that the place I'm at, I don't want to be there anymore.
"Plus, the first time I showed up at practice after [partying], I almost died. I was like, 'I cannot do this and be successful,' so I stopped."
Harris and her aunt live in Winter Garden in the type of neighborhood where drug deals are common, she said. Her older brother, Trent Harris, is in prison, and she saw her teenage cousin killed after he was shot in the head.
"We just try to keep to ourselves," said Hayes, a 33-year-old nursing assistant. "If I ever win the lottery or something, or God blesses me with enough money to get my family out of here, we're all gonna go."
That's Harris' plan, too, one of many. After college, her goals include playing in the WNBA, writing a book about her life and becoming a rapper. She wrote a song about her mother last year.
The first step is making it to graduation.
"I have like 14 grandkids, and she's the first one that's going to college,'' said Harris' grandmother, Dorothy Lighter, clasping her hands together and smiling. "I'm really excited. Oh, bet you that's a sight! I'll be crying and [be] so happy. I was praying for this."
Harris' mother won't get to see her walk across the stage. She won't help her pack for college or wave goodbye as her daughter walks onto campus for the first time, but thoughts of what could have been fuel Harris.
"I think about her every day," Harris said. "If it's not during the day, it's when I'm in the shower, when I do all my thinking. Sometimes I even cry.
"When they say make my mom proud, it's like, do [things] like she was here. She never really got to see me play basketball, but I play like she's in the stands watching me.
"Sometimes I have those thoughts, about everything that happened,'' Harris said. "And for me to overcome everything, I feel like I'm an amazing person."