NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- On nights like Thursday night, the voice rings from the crowd, clear and familiar. The voice of an angel. Or so it must seem to Ieshia Small.
"Get the rebound!" the voice insists. "Shoot the ball, Ieshia."
On nights like Thursday night, Ieshia Small heeds the voice. She floats through the air with the greatest of ease, snatches her own missed shot and banks it back in as she is fouled. She makes the free throw, like sticking a dagger into the Cal Storm Taurasi, and her Essence team wins its first game of Nike Nationals, 54-43.
In a perfect world, Ieshia Small would have taken the winning stroll off the court and into the loving arms of Michelle Robinson, her No. 1 fan and her mother. But this world is as cruel as it is uplifting. It gives, and takes away. On March 1, it claimed the life of Michelle Robinson, who was just 48.
Her father, Marvin, is gone, too. He died when she was 13. Now she and her younger brother, Marvin, live with their older brother, Torrey Washington, 28.
"We were like this," Small said of her mother, crossing her fingers. And Michelle Robinson never missed one of her daughter's games -- until March 1, that is.
That day, Small was in class, taking a test, when she was called to the office at Dr. Krop High School in Miami, Fla. She sat there for six hours, knowing only that her mother was in the hospital. Small called her mother's cell, over and over. No answer. Michelle Robinson had died of a heart attack.
Now, Small has good days and bad days. On the bad days, she will cry herself to sleep. Thursday started out as one of those days. A year ago, she attended Nike Nationals with her mother. They were in the process of deciding to join Essence, a Nike powerhouse that won the tournament in 2007.
"My Mom asked me, 'Are you ready to play in this?' " Small recalled. "I said, 'Yes, I am!' That's what I thought about today."
When she finally lived up to that conversation, Small played to a large crowd with a stomach pounding with butterflies. An otherworldly athlete who was an alpha scorer with other club teams, she is a 2013 prospect who has found her way as a hit of adrenalin on a talented team. It's because she and the likes of Niya Johnson and Shayla Cooper make hustle plays at the end of games that Essence is a dangerous contender here, even if opponents throw the sink at their star forward, Alexis Prince.
Small says she makes the transition happily.
"My role is to hustle, rebound, push the ball up the court," said Small, ranked No. 16 in the 2013 class by ESPN HoopGurlz. "Essence made me into a calmer player. That's what I needed."
Basketball, in the end, was what she needed. When she isn't practicing with Essence, she works out two or three times a day. Small says it keeps her mind off missing her mother.
She keeps the chain Michelle Robinson bought her the day before she died. That, and the hope.
In a few days, the tournament of her dreams will be over. She's not thought much about what she'll do to keep her mind occupied.
"Keep a ball in my hands, I guess," Small said.
She says she still believes her mother is in every crowd. It just makes things easier to continue playing in front of them.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.