Injury cuts Gray's Duke career short

So here we are again, too many times the first time. A little more of a punch in the gut each time thereafter.

This is not the list of names anyone wanted to see Chelsea Gray join as her college career likely ends, any more than we wanted to see any of its other members take their star-crossed places on it.

Shea Ralph. Jacki Gemelos. Whitney Hand. Now Gray.

Players whose own bodies did what opponents never showed much aptitude for accomplishing. Some got more time than others. Some, like Gemelos, never really got to start. None had a chance to finish on her own terms.

As first reported by the Durham Herald-Sun, Gray will miss the remainder of the season after she suffered a fractured right kneecap during Sunday's game against Boston College. That is the same knee she dislocated almost 11 months ago, an injury that forced her to miss the final four games of the regular season and all seven games the team played in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The tally this time will be 13 regular-season games and whatever awaits the Blue Devils in the postseason.

It's difficult to say what the latter might be, but it could still be an extended run.

Duke is better equipped to move on without Gray this season than it was a season ago. Its key players all returned this season and are all a year better. Sophomore Alexis Jones has experience running a team that she gained when Gray was out last season. Tricia Liston knows the pressure that comes with being not just someone who can score 18 to 20 points on any given night but someone who needs to score that much every night. Elizabeth Williams is healthier this spring, and there is more depth inside with Oderah Chidom and Amber Henson around to contribute.

Of course, with Notre Dame's arrival, Maryland's return to health and North Carolina's precociousness, the ACC is also considerably better than it was a season ago. Duke plays all three at home in a 16-day stretch in February, a stretch that should reveal quite a bit.

The Blue Devils can still get to a Final Four this season. They can still earn a No. 1 seed, which is important in order to guarantee avoiding Connecticut along the way. What follows was true last year, and it's true this year. Take Goliath (last season Baylor and Connecticut, this season Connecticut) out of the picture and there are probably eight or nine viable contenders to make it to Nashville. Which of them has a demonstrably better rotation than Jones, Liston, Williams, Haley Peters, Richa Jackson, Chloe Wells and Chidom, with Henson and a few others as wild cards?

You can make a case for Notre Dame and Maryland and Louisville and all the rest. You can make a case for Duke.

Connecticut's shadow obscures it, but taking that regional out of the equation, this might be one of the best fights for Final Four spots we've seen in quite a few seasons. With the talent that remains, Duke is still part of that.

This is why even in October, with a then-healthy Gray back in the fold, Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie refused to concede that she altered her championship expectations when her point guard went down in that February game against Wake Forest.

"I know it lessened our probabilities; I got that," McCallie said in October. "On a probability meter, we probably bounced around a little bit after that. But I really felt strongly that we not only could, but we would, that it was a mission. We're going to do this anyway, that kind of thing, that kind of feeling.

"I really did feel that, all the way to finishing, where we obviously didn't do it."

Now, all of that said, the Blue Devils couldn't come within 10 points of Connecticut at home with Gray on the court this season, just as they couldn't come close against the Huskies a season ago with Gray on the court.

Even if they survive the ACC, even if they finally avoid a quarterfinal showdown against a player like Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike or Skylar Diggins, opponents the past four seasons, respectively, how are they supposed to beat the Huskies without Gray on a neutral court in Nashville? Those aspirations, if you believe they still had merit after the game in Cameron nearly a month ago, are fading like winter sunlight.

It will help at least a little if Gray can lend the same sort of positive support she did this past spring, although no one could fault her if she needed more time on her own to process it this time around, the carrot of another season no longer there. With another round of rehab ahead, she becomes a giant question mark for the WNBA draft. The will is going to be there, just as it was when Gray asked for a basketball so she could dribble while riding the stationary bike early in her most recent rehab. She needed the basketball, needed the reminder of where she was going as she sat and labored in place.

You root for her now, more even than when Gray was piling up assists on the court. Just like we rooted for Ralph and Gemelos and Hand. We will hope this was just lightning striking twice.

We will hope Gray's place on the list is only temporary.

"Her knees aren't the best-looking things in the world," Duke athletic trainer Summer McKeehan said in October. "Anybody who watches her run down the court, her knees are turned in. To me, she doesn't look like an athlete the way you would think. So yeah, she did have some precursors, or precursors for having some knee issues potentially, or hip or ankle. But I think [the dislocation last season] was extremely freak -- the way she landed, what had happened to her knee when she landed -- because she's never had any knee problems before."

Too many times in women's basketball, the first time proves to be only the beginning.

And now Gray won't get to try to earn the ending she craved.