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Scarlet night past, bright days ahead

SAN ANTONIO -- They are linked through a college experience in which they shared some triumphantly transcendent moments ... and some frustratingly distracting ones, too.

Now, still quite young in their professional careers, former Rutgers teammates Essence Carson and Epiphanny Prince are WNBA All-Stars. Both are having a breakout kind of season, which merited their selections as reserves for Saturday's game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

There are many stories and connections here at the AT&T Center, home of the Silver Stars and host to an All-Star contest that will feature an intriguing mix of veterans and rising standouts.

Among the latter are New York's Carson and Chicago's Prince, who helped take the Scarlet Knights to the 2007 NCAA championship game. Then shortly after, they found themselves in a media maelstrom not the slightest bit of their own making when a supposed joking remark by radio host Don Imus sparked a cultural debate.

Four year later, Prince acknowledges that whole episode did cast a pall on what should have been the most celebrated time in her college career. But she also credits Carson as being one of the leaders who guided Rutgers' players through it.

"I feel like it made me grow a lot," Prince said in reflection. "I just watched how Essence handled everything. We learned to forgive; we looked for the positives. When we met with [Imus], he told us he didn't mean to hurt us.

"But to this day, people don't usually ask me if I was on the team that made it to the championship game. They ask was I on that team that was called names by Don Imus."

There's no changing the past, of course, but perhaps this is a particularly good time to irrevocably turn the page toward the future. Neither Carson nor Prince won an NCAA title while at Rutgers, but perhaps both might end up with a WNBA championship.

"To win a title at any level is a big deal, but especially at this level," Carson said. "It would mean the world to me. It's something I'm striving hard toward and something New York wants."

Being at the All-Star Game is a much-appreciated award for both Prince and Carson. Prince, who had tried so hard the past couple of years to become a point guard, doesn't have that responsibility now for the Sky. Far more comfortable in her natural spot as a shooting guard, she is averaging 16.4 points and 3.9 assists per game for Chicago, with rookie -- and fellow All-Star -- Courtney Vandersloot running the point.

"It was hard last year," Prince said of her rookie season in Chicago, spent playing mostly at the point. "I'm not really a vocal leader. I had always thought more 'score first' my whole career, rather than figuring out where everybody else wanted the ball. Then we drafted Courtney, and she's an awesome point guard. I feel like I don't have to think about trying to do that now."

Meanwhile, Carson felt like she was just playing on the margins last year for New York and not performing as well as she was capable. She thought she improved near the end of the summer, but not enough to make up for a regular season she called "shaky." She went overseas this past winter determined to make herself a stronger threat in the WNBA.

"I took the time to really work on a lot of things," Carson said. "Especially the midrange game, because you know that's becoming a lost art in men's and women's basketball. I tried to perfect that as much as I could, and becoming more aggressive offensively. Because the defense will always be there."

That is true for Carson, but it wasn't always true for Prince. A scoring wizard, Prince struggled at times to play defense up to Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's standards. Carson still teases Prince about that but adds that it's one of many things she has improved.

Prince, 23, is in her second season in the WNBA and third year overall as a pro. She bypassed her senior season at Rutgers and went to play overseas. It was a decision a lot of people second-guessed, for good reasons. Prince still maintains it was the best move to aid her in taking care of her family.

"I do feel like it helped me to play with the best players in the world before I went to the WNBA," Prince said of time spent in Russia and Turkey. "And my family and I are doing better now. I don't regret the decision."

That said, Prince's first season in the WNBA -- 2010 -- had its learning curve, despite the time she spent overseas. Last summer, Prince averaged 9.8 points and started just two games. A full-time starter so far this year, Prince seems to have found her groove.

"I've watched her growth -- not just going back to college, but also high school," Carson said. "She's still just as quiet, but her game has evolved with the experience she's had at the professional level. You see it with the passes and moves she makes, and her shot selection.

"She's always had the uncanny ability to score at any time and in bunches. Her main things were just being able to differentiate good from bad shots, when to pass, when to take over in games. This year, she's showing she has a grasp of all of that."

Meanwhile, Carson, who turns 25 on Thursday, is statistically having the best of her four WNBA seasons. She's averaging 13.4 points, and it's not surprising that with her background in defense, she adjusted easily to new Liberty coach John Whisenant.

"He's so defensive-oriented, it reminds me of coach Stringer's system," Carson said. "And his offensive philosophy really just lets us play. We work off each other, and all of us have a good basketball IQ. That makes everything flow so much easier."

Carson and Prince both will need to play well in the second half of the season to help their respective teams make the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference. But the chance to happily greet each other in this setting -- enjoying the honor of being in the All-Star Game -- gives them a boost toward finishing the summer just as strongly as they've started it.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.