The Maryland women line up for their ritual pregame hand slaps, but the littlest Terp is running late.
Her nausea has kicked up all day, and the atrophying muscles in her legs are tormenting her. It's a testament to her toughness that she's on her way to the game at all.
When she arrives in her red Maryland basketball T-shirt and matching red headband, the courtside ushers clear a path so she can get to her teammates, the largest of whom have 3 feet on her. Each starter makes sure to touch her hand, and she nudges into her familiar place in the post-introduction huddle.
In this moment, you'd never guess the troubles that beset Ashlyn Barrett's 6-year-old existence.
When she was 5 months old, Ashlyn, an Annapolis resident, was diagnosed with ectopic atrial tachycardia, a condition that causes her heartbeat to speed up drastically and dance out of rhythm, often with no warning. She was subsequently diagnosed with a neuro-muscular disease that causes pain and weakness in her extremities. It also likely contributes to her regular bouts of violent nausea.
"She goes through a lot," says her mother, Jennifer.
Ashlyn's conditions prevent her from attending school or from following her older sister, Makenzie, into organized sports. She's regularly in and out of the hospital and can't get to sleep many nights because of the discomfort in her stomach and the pain in her limbs.
Jennifer had to leave her job in the development office at the Naval Academy to care for her.
After years of bleak news, the Barrett family had no idea a large dose of fun, comfort and communion would arrive from one of the best women's basketball programs in the country.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese knows plenty about coping with a child's illness after her son, Tyler, endured three years of chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
So when Team IMPACT — a nonprofit that pairs college teams with children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses — approached Maryland about taking on Ashlyn, the decision was an easy one.
Frese knew how much it meant to her family when her players scooped Tyler into their arms during some of his lowest moments. And she liked the idea of passing that gift to another family.
What she didn't entirely grasp was how much Ashlyn would mean to the players, who often describe themselves as a family more than a team.
"She lights me up," says senior guard Brene Moseley. "I'll be in my zone, warming up pregame. But then I see her walking over, and it puts things in a different perspective. We're all kids at heart, and she puts us in our element."
Senior center Malina Howard is a bubbly personality by nature, but watching Ashlyn has made her more grateful for every game she gets to play.
"We know what she goes through, and she's still so happy all the time," Howard says. "She makes me want to be a better person, to value my life more."
Sophomore forward A'Lexus Harrison is teaching Ashlyn to dance. "Bounce," she'll tell her. "OK, now wind it up. Cross it out!"
Yes, Ashlyn Dabs.
"It's just so cool to see her on the bench, trying to do the same stuff we do," Harrison says. "That kind of interaction is so important, having those big sisters. She just wants to dance and play, and I hope we bring that level of excitement for her."
Ashlyn's parents say the players will never know how deeply the experience has touched their family. The time and financial strains created by her illnesses mean they don't get out as much as they'd like. So Maryland games have become their rallying point.
"Honestly, I figure we would come to some games, maybe a few practices, and Ashlyn would get to talk to the girls occasionally," Jennifer says. "But I didn't expect the overwhelming amount of support they've given us. She's part of a team. She's got a bunch of big aunts out there."
'Day to day'
Ashlyn joined the program at an official signing day ceremony in October, where she received her entirely-too-large No. 16 jersey. Her great-grandmother, Yia Yia, had trouble getting up the stairs at the Xfinity Center, so Moseley ate cake in the stands with the family matriarch. Point guard and great-grandma are fast friends now, which suggests the degree to which the entire family has bonded with the program.
The team held a movie night at which they watched one of Ashlyn's favorite Disney flicks, "Descendants."
Howard later collected money from teammates so they could celebrate their new friend's sixth birthday. Presents included a Descendants doll and a book and stuffed animal from the popular game Minecraft.
A Wii gaming night at the home of Ashlyn's grandparents was in the works for this weekend.
Players often text Jennifer when they know Ashlyn is about to go in for a medical procedure. When the program sends promotional mail to recruits, Ashlyn always receives her own copy.
The team has created a rich world for a girl who can't go to school and, as a result, has just one close friend her age.
For her part, Ashlyn had her room repainted in Maryland colors, festooned it with posters and bobbleheads of the players and christened her new pet turtle "Terp."
During pregame warm-ups, she stations herself on the baseline, where teammates hold her hand and shield her from bounding balls. As the national anthem plays, she stands at attention beside them. When the game ends, she's right there in the locker room to share the joy of victory or, on rare occasions, to hear Frese deliver her salty analysis of a poor performance.
Sometimes, harsher realities intervene.
On the way to one game, Jennifer looked in her rearview mirror to see Ashlyn suddenly "white as a sheet." She became violently sick to her stomach and had to go to the hospital instead of the Xfinity Center.
"Everything in our lives is day to day," Jennifer says.
Ashlyn's long-term medical prognosis isn't clear. Two surgeries designed to improve her heart rhythm have been unsuccessful and a third might be in the offing. Meanwhile, after extensive genetic testing, the family is awaiting a final diagnosis on her neuro-muscular condition. Whatever the answer, there won't be a cure.
Doctors don't believe her heart and muscle conditions are related, but the symptoms interact in unpleasant ways.
It all adds up to a treacherous road ahead.
And yet, Ashlyn will have her team — a relationship Frese and her staff say will last as long as the family wishes.
"You grow with the child," Frese says, "just like our team has grown up with my kids."
Struggles during game
In the stands, after her late arrival for the Thursday evening game against Wisconsin, Ashlyn seems more subdued than usual. She bobs to a few songs. And whenever the Terps sink a three-pointer, she cups her hands into circles and places them over her eyes like goggles. It's a ritual she and her dad, Justin, invented.
But she's struggling, and so is her team, which can't put away a seemingly overmatched opponent. Ashlyn doesn't even want to stand beside the tunnel and slap hands with the players as they emerge after halftime. Her nausea won't stop her.
As the seconds wind down on an 83-77 Maryland victory, she positions herself to follow the players into the locker room. This, along with warm-ups, is her favorite part. Her parents stay behind. The moments are all hers.
As the players await Frese, Harrison boosts Ashlyn's seat so she's on eye level with everyone else.
"Ashlyn, you may want to get out of here for this talk," says junior transfer Ieshia Small. "This isn't going to be the prettiest."
Small isn't wrong. "You disrespected the game tonight," Frese tells them sharply.
Ashlyn sits still, listening to the criticism as stoically as the rest of the team. But, just as the players have given her light for the last four months, she has a little light to offer them.
In her hands is a package wrapped in white paper and blue tape, addressed, "To: Md. Team."
After Frese is done, sophomore Aja Ellison tears the paper away to reveal a ceramic oval with a basketball-shaped turtle soaring across the surface — an Ashlyn design.
Smiles break out as Frese asks how long it took to craft this treasure, which immediately goes on top of the dry erase board at the head of the room.
At the end of another difficult day, Ashlyn looks pleased.