The 2017-18 season was shaping up to be a breakout year for Maryland guard Blair Watson. ESPN’s No. 29 overall recruit in 2016, Watson was averaging 13.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore. She helped her team start off the season 15-2, and the Terps were aiming for a fourth straight Big Ten title.
All of that changed when Watson tore the ACL in her right knee during practice Jan. 10, 2018. Watson made a steal and streaked down the court for a wide-open layup. As she rose to finish the play, her right leg gave way.
"It felt like I put my knee in a microwave," Watson said.
Watson’s season was over. She underwent surgery Feb. 6, 2018, prompting an offseason of grueling rehabilitation. Watson started the 2018-19 season on time in November and regained her spot in head coach Brenda Frese’s starting lineup after just two games. As of Feb. 13, the 6-foot Watson is averaging 8.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists for a Maryland team that has designs on making the deep postseason run that eluded the Terps last year.
"She never put her head down, she never blamed anybody, she never blamed herself," said junior guard Sarah Myers, Watson’s best friend on the team. "She honestly took it day by day, and she was always so motivated to get in there to do the work with [athletic trainer Megan Rogers]. Every day she was in there. It was pretty cool. It was easy to motivate her because she was so motivated herself."
As demanding as rehab turned out to be, Watson said watching her team from the sidelines without being able to help was probably worse. Maryland, which dropped five of its final nine games, lost in the Big Ten Tournament championship game to Ohio State, 79-69, the first time the program hadn’t won the conference tournament since joining the league. The Terps also lost in second round of the NCAA Tournament, 74-60, to N.C. State.
"You saw when she went down last year the impact and the hit that placed on us," Frese said. "She was our best defender, our best passer, our best 3-point shooter, you name it."
The timing of the injury wasn’t particularly helpful to Watson, either. She had already played in 17 games at the time of the injury and wasn’t granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA, meaning she had just two years of eligibility remaining once she returned to action.
That news drove Watson to, as she put it, "work harder than I ever did before" to ensure she could start the 2018-19 season on time.
"It’s pretty hard rehab every day," Watson said. "You start off kind of slow for the first three months, like learning how to walk again and get your running back together. Kind of just trusting yourself and also getting that mental aspect of kind of getting out of your head to know that your knee is now fine or know that your knee is working to where it needs to be. So also that patience was kind of a big thing for me, too."
Exercises to regain her flexibility were the most painful part of rehab.
"The bending is like the worst part that I’d ever been through. It was kind of rough," Watson said. "They basically bend your knee to try to get your flexion back, so they push your heel to your butt, and all your scar tissue and your muscles have to stretch. That was probably my worst part."
It wasn’t the first major injury and rehab Watson had gone through. She had surgery to correct a torn labrum following her senior season at Nutley (N.J.) High School. The impact of the surgery lingered into her freshman year at Maryland, during which she averaged just 10.9 minutes per game and didn’t show off the scoring ability that made her Nutley’s all-time leading scorer (2,127 points).
Myers had experienced something similar, which helped her relate to Watson.
"I hurt my ankle at the end of my senior year, so I couldn’t play my last couple of games, which hurt," Myers said. "I know she had her shoulder injury at the end of her senior year, so we kind of bonded over that -- that we couldn’t really play at the end of our senior years -- so just to see her go down again, I knew she was flashing back to those situations, so just trying to give her encouragement."
This time around, Watson’s basketball activity picked up about six months after surgery, and she began to feel close to 100 percent confident in her knee about eight or nine months into her rehab, at which point she began to get back into game-like situations in practice. She had to wear a brace on her knee when preseason practices officially started in early October.
Watson played 18 minutes against Coppin State in Maryland’s season opener Nov. 9. Two days later against Dayton, she posted 14 points, three rebounds, five steals and four assists in 20 minutes.
"I’ll never forget. It was the Dayton game, and I had eight points in like 30 seconds," Watson said. "And it kind of just hit me like, ‘I’m back. I’m playing again. I’m who I need to be.’ And it all just kind of took off from there."
Frese inserted her back into the starting lineup after that and staggered her workload; the first time Watson played more than 30 minutes in back-to-back games was Dec. 28 against Penn State and Dec. 31 against Rutgers -- the first two Big Ten games of Maryland’s season.
"Obviously wanting to bring her along at the right pace so mentally she was kind of prepared coming out," Frese said. "Her knee is stronger than the other one at this point with the amount of rehab that she’s done. So just getting the confidence back for her, and I think with that rhythm of every game and then getting her to the point for conference play that she was ready and able to handle these minutes."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 251: February 2019
Originally published Feb. 15, 2019