The consensus among the players and coaches of the Mount St. Mary’s women’s basketball team is that no one can rival redshirt freshman Aryna Taylor when it comes to getting under an opponent’s skin.
And the 5-foot-10 shooting guard doesn’t even target her defender. She reserves her choice words for the opposing players trying to mark her teammates.
“If Becks [junior center Rebecca Lee] is killing it in the post, it’s, ‘You’re too small,’ ” said Taylor, whose first name is pronounced ARE-nay. “If Mick [sophomore point guard Michaela Harrison] is going off on a streak from the 3-point line, it’s, ‘You better guard her. You might want to guard her.’ It’s just little stuff like that, and I think we all feed off of each other. When we’re all excited as one unit, you can’t beat us. We’re really good when we’re all up and we’re all happy.”
Taylor’s chirping doesn’t bother coach Maria Marchesano.
“She’s one of the few kids on our team that talks trash,” she said. “I don’t mind it as long as it’s respectful.”
Taylor is more than just talk, however, for the Mountaineers (18-9, 13-3 Northeast Conference), who have locked up the No. 2 seed in the league tournament and will test a nine-game winning streak against conference leader Robert Morris (19-7, 14-1) at Knott Arena in Emmittsburg on Monday at 7 p.m. She ranks fifth on the team in scoring (7.4 points per game) and fourth in playing time (20.4 minutes per game) despite playing 27 games without a start.
Taylor’s performance is a realization of a life-long dream to play NCAA Division I basketball that appeared to be jeopardized by a series of knee injuries.
“I worked hard to get to where I’m at,” she said. “My family has been there to help me, and they’ve pushed me, and that’s what I’ve wanted. So I just kept striving to work hard and get to that. I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way of me not playing.”
Taylor’s prowess at basketball was no secret in her hometown of Ashland, Virginia, and Phillip Cobb, the coach of the varsity girls basketball team at Patrick Henry High School, was eager to put her on the roster. But in the summer before her freshman year, Taylor went up for a layup in a pickup game, landed on a plastic Frisbee laying on a ramp behind the baseline, and tore the ACL in her left knee.
“For me, that being my very first injury, it was a real big mental shock for me,” she recalled. “Also, I was very young. So I was always questioning, ‘Why me? Why did this happen?’ But I had a really good support system around me with my friends and family that kept me going. I just kept going and kept playing.”
Taylor bounced back quickly, earning All-Conference 16 first-team honors as a sophomore in 2014-15 and junior in 2015-16 and scoring 875 points during that span. She averaged 25 points, four rebounds and four assists as a junior en route to being named the conference’s Player of the Year.
But in the summer before her senior season, Taylor felt her right knee buckle while working as a camp counselor with several children. Later, while jumping with her charges, the same knee buckled again, and when she woke up the next morning, it was swollen, and there was bruising behind the knee. A diagnosis revealed another ACL tear.
“That was a big blow,” Cobb said. “She had a chance to get to 1,000 points even though she was only going to play for three years. It was definitely heartbreaking for her and her teammates. It was a huge loss, and I felt really bad for her. But we had conversations. She had done it before, and she could do it again, and she had a goal to play college basketball. So she was going to do everything she could to make that happen.”
Taylor, who had committed to Mount St. Mary’s just before the second ACL injury, was worried that school would pull its scholarship offer after she informed the coaches of the tear. But her worries proved unfounded.
“Here at the Mount, you take a chance on a kid like that,” said Marchesano, who did not recruited Taylor. “You take a chance on a kid that’s hungry. Even though she’s injured, she’s super talented.”
In October 2017, Taylor worked on a defensive drill during practice and tore the right ACL again. The next year, the medical staff discovered a slight tear in her right meniscus, and although the injury did not require surgery, she was sidelined for six weeks and missed her second consecutive season.
Four injury setbacks might have discouraged many other players, but Taylor remained resolute.
“My family asks me about it all the time, like, ‘Do you ever question it?’” she said. “At that time, it was like a constant negative, that I always had to get surgery. So I was like, ‘OK, next thing. I have to do something. I have to go do rehab for however long, but I’ve just got to get it done.’”
Junior guard Bridget Birkhead, who has been a roommate with Taylor for three years, said Taylor is not the type to sulk.
“It was definitely a new experience for me because I had never really had a teammate that had gone through that so many times,” Birkhead said. “She still got to experience everything that we did — just from the sidelines. So she helped us and kept us mentally ready.”
A junior by academic standing but a redshirt freshman by athletic eligibility, the 20-year-old Taylor made her college debut at then-No. 13 Kentucky and had eight points and two rebounds in 19 minutes. Two days later, she amassed 15 points, eight rebounds and five steals in 27 minutes at then-No. 24 Indiana.
“That showed me that I can actually do this, that I can actually be a Division I basketball player, that I can play this game against higher-level kids,” Taylor said of her outing against the Hoosiers. “At this time right now, it just seems like I’m completing games fully. I’m not playing the full 40, but I’m playing and at the end of the day, I’m OK. It’s a good cycle again. I’m playing, and there are no injuries.”
Marchesano said Taylor’s contributions have exceeded her expectations.
“Our first two games, we go to Kentucky and Indiana, and the bright lights did not bother her at all,” she said. “She showed up, she scored at will, she got downhill, and she defended. So we knew right away that she was going to be a huge spark off the bench for us.”
Taylor continues to wear a brace on her right knee. But she said the biggest motivator is a series of scars on both knees.