USC: Gemelos injury is team rallying point, star guard inspires her team even after injury

LOS ANGELES – At a recent practice, the USC Trojans were working a routine scrimmage with their usual intensity when freshman forward Alexyz Vaioletama came down from a rebound and landed hard on her foot under the basket.

After two seconds had elapsed and Vaioletama still sat there, her teammates came forward and made a circle around her, perching over her like watchful birds. After a few more tense and hushed seconds, the young player made a move to get up. All of her teammates collectively exhaled as they reached out to assist her.

The Women of Troy are on high alert and understandably so. A rash of injuries the last few years culminated last month in perhaps the most devastating blow yet: the re-injury of Jacki Gemelos and the end of not only her senior season, but her college career. The star guard was not just one of USC’s leading scorers and rebounders when she tore an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for the fourth time – she was the heart of the team.

Healing for the Trojans took root as soon as their teammate was carried off the court during the December 18 game at Texas A&M, and her plight has become their rallying point. Recovery for Gemelos’ body will begin Tuesday, when she has her fifth knee reconstruction surgery; the healing of her spirit will take longer.

ACL redux

It was on a drive to the basket with 3:37 left in the first half that the 23-year-old tore her left ACL for the second time. She knew immediately what had happened and said later that it was why she could not stop crying while trainers attended to her. Coach Michael Cooper stayed by Gemelos’ side the entire time, and accompanied her to the training room. Across the court, the team was trying to cope.

“We came together, held hands and started praying,” junior forward Christina Marinacci said. “Everyone had teared up except Briana [Gilbreath], who broke down after the game.”

The Trojans took over the contest after that, dominating the defending national champions for most of the second half. Marinacci said it was not anything that was mutually discussed at the time, but rather, they made a silent agreement between them.

“We all just looked at each other and knew we had to come together for Jacki,” Marinacci said.

The Aggies rallied in the last two minutes and ended up winning by one point. But the USC women were not swayed. Marinacci said the game was “the turning point” for them. They beat Pepperdine three days later, in overtime. They won three out of their first four Pac-12 games, losing only to fourth-ranked Stanford in a close game. Players say team momentum is high, and they are ready for any challenge. Junior forward Stefanie Gilbreath said Gemelos is the reason.

“We’re playing for Jacki,” Gilbreath said. “She inspires us, we know her pain, and we don’t want to lose for her. She has kept us going with her strength, and now we’re going to be strong for her.”

Gilbreath knows Gemelos’ pain more than most; Gilbreath has torn her ACL three times, and like Gemelos, sat out three seasons before being able to play in her first college game. Both came back last season, and Gemelos helped the World University Games team win a gold medal last summer. Gilbreath considers her a big sister of sorts.

“I’ve always looked to her because she came here first,” Gilbreath said. “I’ve followed behind her and watched her attitude toward rehab. I know how hard she’s worked, which is why this injury of hers really hurts me.”

Gemelos’ injury troubles began at the end of her senior year in high school, in 2006, when she tore her right ACL. In 2007 she tore it again, and the next year she tore the left ACL. Gemelos had to have a second surgery on the left knee, after a graft placed there dissolved. Next week’s surgery is her fifth.

Marinacci said that in light of Gemelos’ new injury, the team now has a bigger perspective on the season, which fuels their fire.

“This has made us come together as a team, and we’re playing for a bigger purpose than to get to the NCAA tournament,” she said.

USC’s pre-conference schedule was one of the toughest in the country, with opponents like Georgia, Notre Dame and Gonzaga. They were ranked 23rd in pre-season polls, and predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 Conference. Currently tied for second going into today’s game against UCLA, the Women of Troy are executing it differently than they’d planned.

Gemelos’ absence has resulted in different assignments and rotations on the court, and what Cooper said is players “stepping up.” Senior guard Ashley Corral, who is best friends with Gemelos, has taken back over most of the point guard duties, which had been handled by Gemelos and freshman Ariya Crook. Vaioletama is also logging significant minutes.

“Losing Jacki is huge for our team, but no matter who is injured, it’s everyone else’s job to pick up the slack,” Corral said. “We’ve been doing a very good job of that, and we’re not going to let anything come between us.”

Cooper likes what he has seen lately.

“Some people have stepped up big for us,” he said. “We are showing that we can compete in the Pac-12 and hold our own.”

USC’s recent successes are also the result of how much they have bonded as a team. Gilbreath, Marinacci and Corral each said they have not been on such a close team before this year.

“We’re so close because we bonded off court, which has helped us on court, too,” Gilbreath said.

Participating from the bench

Gemelos huddled with the team at the Pepperdine game, and was back at practices the next week, after the holiday break, dribbling and shooting the ball on the sidelines. She is in constant motion at auxiliary baskets while her teammates are running drills. Cooper said she is an extra coach now, talking to players as a group, or one-on-one.

“Jacki is still part of the team, but her view on the bench is more like a coach,” Cooper said. “Her perspective is valuable because she’s been on the court with them.”

Marinacci said players like that.

“She really sees the game, and we truly value her opinion and appreciate what she has to say.”

Both coaches and players have also reached out and taken steps to make sure Gemelos remains part of the team.

“It would be easy for her not to be involved anymore but we include her in everything.”

Yet, Corral said that doesn’t mean putting any expectations on Gemelos.

“We don’t need Jacki stressing herself out,” Corral said. “We’re not expecting her to do anything except focus on getting herself well.”

Gemelos, known for her positive attitude and perseverance, plans to rehabilitate after surgery and play again. At breaks during her sideline workouts, she stops to laugh or joke with a practice player or two. But there is a lot going on behind those blue eyes.

When she is told that a high school senior she inspired to rehabilitate an ACL injury has, like herself, torn the ligament again, Gemelos leans forward in her chair, puts her chin in her hand and goes away for a moment, lost in thought. Gemelos’ college career is over, and she is going through the grieving process.

“It’s really hard and very stressful, and I am trying to not get emotional sitting on the bench,” she said. “But it’s very difficult to have to watch again.”

She said she appreciates the support of teammates, and that a key to keeping herself going right now is “just keeping the ball in my hand.”

Gemelos is getting her wish to have surgery as quickly as possible, so she can begin rehabilitation. Gilbreath said she will continue to support her.

“The key is staying positive, because it’s a long journey,” Gilbreath said. “After surgery you can have good rehabs and difficult rehabs. It’s good to have a friend who knows what you’re going through.”

The Women of Troy will continue to play for their teammate.

Marinacci said that though they are pleased with their Pac-12 Conference efforts so far, they are embracing the process step-by-step.

“We are taking it one game at a time, and focusing on what we need to do each day,” she said. “Because each game can make or break a season.”

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