USC's Briana Gilbreath talks about the tough loss at Texas A&M and the team dealing with a potential injury to Jacki Gemelos.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Southern California women's hoops team wanted to test itself this nonconference season, but probably not this much. A difficult schedule has taken the Trojans from Nebraska to Georgia to the Bahamas to Washington State to Arkansas to Texas.
The Trojans are 4-5, so it has definitely been a challenge. The most recent stop -- Sunday afternoon at Texas A&M -- was the most painful in more ways than one. USC had a victory in its grasp over the defending national champions, but it got away from the Trojans right at the end.
But falling to the Aggies 71-70 -- thanks largely to Sydney Carter's 3-pointer with 10 seconds left -- wasn't the worst thing that happened to the Trojans. In the first half, they lost senior Jacki Gemelos to what was confirmed Tuesday as another ACL tear. Gemelos spent the second half on the bench, her left knee wrapped up.
Tuesday, she spoke in a video on USC's web site about how, despite her disappointment, she's not ready to give up the sport.
"Probably just disbelief, heartache -- I was sad, trying to think about my future and what was I going to do next," Gemelos said of what was going through her mind during the second half Sunday. "But I watched my team and it was unbelievable how hard they were playing and how well they were playing.
"The next steps for me I tore my left ACL completely again. I've only had a couple of days to ponder this. I'm 23 years old, and I can't see myself putting the basketball down yet. It's a very huge part of me. I don't foresee myself stopping. I want to take it day-by-day. I think that even though it may not seem like it right now, I think I am supposed to play basketball for a long time."
Sunday afternoon, it was very clear from the reactions of everyone with USC that they feared the worst.
"It was emotional simply for the fact that we know what Jacki Gemelos has been through," USC coach Michael Cooper said of his team's mindset after she went down. "And for that young lady to go through this again "
Cooper's voice caught in his throat and his eyes filled with tears. Everyone could understand why.
Gemelos' star-crossed story is well-known to women's basketball fans across the country, who were very much hoping she'd get a well-deserved happy ending in college.
Gemelos, a Stockton, Calif., native who initially committed to UConn before deciding it was too far from home, suffered her first ACL injury in March 2006. She tore the ligament in her right knee during a high school playoff game. It took away what was to be her freshman college season.
The second ACL injury was also in her right knee, suffered in September 2007, and she lost another season. Her third ACL injury was in her left knee, and that occurred in October 2008. One more season gone.
By May 2009, she had finished three years at USC without ever having played a college game. Then she got more bad news: The cadaver graft that had been used in her previous surgery had been rejected and essentially dissolved. She had to go through a fourth surgery and rehab process.
Gemelos at last made her college debut on Feb. 4, 2010, and played in 11 games total that season. Last year, she played in all 37 games, starting 28 and averaging 12.4 points for a USC team that made it to the postseason WNIT title game.
This season, Gemelos was averaging 11.6 points coming into Sunday against the Aggies. Starting as she has all season, Gemelos had 6 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds before she was hurt on a drive to the basket with 3 minutes, 37 seconds left in the first half.
Reed Arena got very quiet, and Gemelos' anguish as she lay on the floor was gut-wrenching to hear.
"It hurts," Cooper said, and that's an emotional pain felt by the entire women's basketball community. Coming out of St. Mary's High School in Stockton, where she averaged 39.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game as a senior, Gemelos was expected to be a major impact player for USC before the knee problems began.
The fact she has been through all she has and is still playing is amazing. That she will have to endure that same knee rehab again -- with her college career now over -- seems cruelly unfair.
However, even with Gemelos injured and the Trojans dealing with that immediate emotional fallout, they still nearly knocked off the Aggies. It would have been the first loss to a nonconference foe at home for Texas A&M senior starters Carter, Tyra White and Adaora Elonu.
The Trojans were in control for most of the second half, and led by eight points with 2:34 remaining. But in the end, the Aggies' defense made the difference. USC scored just three points in the game's last four minutes, all on free throws.
Ashley Corral led USC with 16 points, but was kicking herself for missing the first of two free throws with 19 seconds left. She made the second one, but it wasn't enough after Carter -- who has struggled mightily with her shooting this season -- sank her 3-pointer to put the Aggies ahead by one.
It was just the sixth make in 32 attempts from behind the arc thus far in 2011-12 for the senior Carter, and it came at crunch time.
It was an important game for Texas A&M. The Aggies had lost Dec. 4 and 6 to Purdue and UConn, respectively, and scored just 51 points in both games. On Dec. 11, they won 68-53 at TCU, but coach Gary Blair still wasn't pleased with how they were playing.
Sunday, when Texas A&M honored last year's Final Four most outstanding player Danielle Adams at halftime by hanging her jersey number in the rafters, the Aggies again had a difficult time despite the win.
Still, it was a victory. Junior guard Adrienne Pratcher had 22 points and 9 assists, and Blair called it the best performance of her A&M career.
"We needed a game like that," Blair said. "We've got a lot of things that are wrong with our basketball team, but effort and will to win are not [among] them. I'm proud of my basketball team for coming back.
"I give USC a lot of credit. They run their sets extremely well Ashley Corral just did a tremendous job for them."
The Trojans lost by two points Wednesday at Arkansas State. Then Gemelos got hurt and they fell by one point at Texas A&M on Sunday. It's very hard for a team to look on the bright side after all of that, but Corral did at least try to do that.
Her eyes were red, and she was clearly very upset about Gemelos. However, Corral could be heartened by how USC played in the second half despite Gemelos' absence. At this point, the Trojans have to hold onto whatever positives they can.
"Looking at our schedule before the season, I wouldn't say I was excited to be on the road this much," Corral said. "But now that it's winding down, this is what we needed. We've hit everything we could have faced. This is going to help us in the Pac-12 more than anything."
As for Gemelos, she has had a longtime dream of playing in the WNBA. There were definitely moments in Sunday's game, before her injury, where her instincts and skill reminded observers of how good a player she can be when healthy.
One player that Gemelos can look to for inspiration is Kiesha Brown, whose collegiate career at Georgia was disrupted by multiple knee problems, but did go on to play professionally.
Gemelos is scheduled to have surgery in January. If there were ever any greater athletic example of perseverance in the face of injury hardship, you'd be hard-pressed to find it.
"I think I will pull my head above water and definitely get back to that mentality where all I want to do is fight to get back to playing the game I love," she said. "I get flashes of that even today and yesterday through all the sadness. It's been incredible -- I can't thank people enough for the kind words and inspirational things they have to say to me. I want to show everyone that I still can do it."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.