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After two knee surgeries, Laurin Mincy leads Maryland women to Sweet 16

Laurin Mincy has recovered from major surgeries on both of her knees to lead Maryland to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

As shot after shot ripped through the net and her thin blade of a frame bounced around the Xfinity Center court, possessed by some rare electricity, Laurin Mincy felt like the player she was always meant to be.

No longer was the Maryland senior defined by the surgical scars on each knee, by the angst of playing in a body that would not answer her spirit's call. She was back — back to being the 5-year-old girl who'd reduced opponents to tears with her precocious crossover dribbles, back to being the middle schooler who'd had her jersey retired because she was just that dominant.

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In her last home game for the Terps, against an undefeated foe with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, Mincy was simply the best player on the floor.

Her final line against Princeton — 27 points, seven assists, 6-for-7 on 3-pointers — said a lot. But it couldn't begin to sum up the elation teammates, coaches and family members felt for Mincy as they let their minds drift back over all those games missed, all those days she spent rebuilding her knees step by painful step.

"It's a lot of fun right now for me to see her bask in all this," said Maryland junior Brene Moseley, who endured knee rehabilitation side by side with Mincy. "She's waited her turn."

"Just to see her play that way," said her father, Duane, trailing off as he contemplated his daughter's journey. "You have to understand, when Laurin's healthy, that's what we're used to seeing."

As Maryland prepares to play Duke on Saturday in the NCAA women's round of 16, the Terps want to win for all the obvious reasons. This is a sophomore-dominated group with no clear superstar filling the shoes of Mincy's old classmate, Alyssa Thomas. But make no mistake; they badly want to author a suitable ending for the team's lone senior, the player they affectionately refer to as "Grandma."

"That's who we play for," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.

'She was the best'

Five years ago, as another highly decorated recruiting class joined Frese's program, it wasn't at all obvious that Thomas, and not Mincy, would become the All-American and program's all-time leading scorer. Instead, it seemed the pair would lead Maryland together — Thomas as a multi-faceted powerhouse and Mincy as a quick and deadly sniper from the wings.

"She was the best player when I came here," Moseley said of Mincy. "I still believe that."

But where Thomas surged along a straight path to greatness, Mincy encountered a more jagged road.

She grew up in Newark, N.J. as a true prodigy. Even at age 2, she'd cry if her father tuned the family television away from Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. If he flipped the game back on, she regained her composure.

"When I was growing up, I thought my dad was Michael Jordan," Mincy recalled. "They both had the bald heads, the earrings in their ears. So I was a little confused."

By age 5, she had an adult's shooting form and sophisticated dribble moves. At camp that summer, her father warned counselors to put her with the older kids. But they didn't, and she quickly left her peers bawling as they failed to keep up. She was an empathetic child by nature, so she cried because they were crying. When the other kids took breaks to swim or make crafts, she refused to leave the court.

In middle school games, her father said, she routinely scored 35 to 40 points. She had barely hit puberty when the school retired her jersey. "I never heard of that before," Duane Mincy said with a laugh.

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His daughter was also a strong student and so laid-back that she could almost get lost in the house because she made so little noise.

Mincy's parents split when she was young, and her mother, Carol Smith, moved to Pennsylvania when Mincy was a freshman at Newark's University High School. She opted to stay with her father, a Newark firefighter, rather than leave her friends and basketball connections.

She describes this all with as little fuss as she raises about any aspect of her life. "They were both always around," she said. "I've always had a family atmosphere around me."

She made all-state as a freshman and was New Jersey's player of the year as a sophomore and junior. She ranked among the top recruits in the country. And then, her legs failed her for the first time.

'Why me?'

The injury happened at a game in New York, and on the phone Mincy told her father she'd just "tweaked" her left knee. But as she tried to get out of his truck later that night, he realized she could barely walk. She tried resting, but a few weeks later, Duane Mincy watched her crumple as she tried to run down the court.

She'd torn the anterior cruciate ligament. Her senior season in high school was over before it started.

But the injury did not dissuade interest from Maryland or other elite programs. Mincy played in 31 games as a freshman for the Terps, slowly regaining her bounce as she also acclimated to the more aggressive college game. By her sophomore year, she was a star again, starting all but one game and averaging nearly 20 points in three NCAA tournament wins.

Before her junior season, she was on watch lists for national player of the year, right beside Thomas. She already had 16 points against Nebraska when she hit the floor with 15 minutes to go in a late-November game.

Coaches yelped at her to get up, but Moseley remembers reading her teammate's face and knowing instantly what had happened. Mincy tried to have hope as she sat on the court, but she had felt the sensation before. This time, the ACL in her right knee had torn.

"The second time was bad," her father said. "She was asking 'Why me?' I know I cried that time, too."

Again Mincy went through the arduous stages of rehabilitation — refusing to take prescription painkillers after a few days, standing up as soon as she could, stretching the joint over and over as she tried to regain trust that it would hold.

That 2012-2013 season actually wasn't as psychologically difficult as last year, when Mincy was cleared to play but simply couldn't move like her former self.

'Where has the time gone?'

Frese did some of her best work then, urging Mincy to keep her faith, telling her the team needed her not in November but in March. "We had countless talks about me just staying the course," Mincy recalled.

By the time Maryland made a surprise run to the Final Four, Mincy was a key contributor again, one of the supporting pieces behind her buddy, Thomas.

Moseley remembers when she and Mincy were both hurt, telling her friend the injury might be a blessing in disguise, because Mincy would eventually take center stage as the program's sole senior.

That prophecy came true this season. Mincy has started all 34 games and led Maryland in scoring. When the team played at Rutgers, her dad hosted everyone for dinner in Newark, and his firefighter buddies brought their truck by the house, blazing the lights to celebrate a hometown star.

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Mincy has also emerged as a louder presence — an intense leader on the court and a self-described clown off it. "I'm really goofy," she said. "I dance all the time, to anything."

Perhaps that's the side of her that connects so well with children. Mincy is a family science major, and her father said she's talked about owning a string of daycare centers one day. Last summer, she volunteered at a Prince George's County recreation center, helping with a program designed to keep teenagers off the streets during the evening. Several of the kids showed up to watch her torch Princeton on Monday night.

Mincy found herself in a reflective mood before the game and posted her thoughts on Instagram: "Man 5 years of hard work, struggle, injuries, tears, joy, and love playing in this building, in front of the nation's best fans along side my little sisters, where has time gone? Last time playing on that floor tonight, and I know we're ready."

There was a moment few noticed against Princeton, when Mincy took an awkward fall and her knee flexed at an odd angle. "Oh God," her father thought, bringing his hand to his head in the stands. Her mother's heart raced as she watched the game from home.

For a second, Mincy felt the fear in her own gut. But just for a second. "I got right up," she said. "And I was fine."

twitter.com/childswalker

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