An Incredible Comeback
Megan Nipe Played Through Torn ACL - and Excelled
May 16, 2014
Megan Nipe averaged more than 16 points per game and made 8-of-9 three-pointers in the GW women's basketball team's three postseason contests - outstanding numbers that may come as no surprise from a veteran leader playing in the final games of her career.
Except that she did it all on a torn ACL.
Nipe was having a dream season. The grad student was the Atlantic 10 Conference's fourth-leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game through the first 11 games of the season, and had already poured in 31 points in two separate contests, including against No. 10/11 California on Nov. 15.
"I felt like I was playing the best basketball of my career," she said.
The 7-4 Colonials were riding high on a three-game winning streak and had just received an additional spark with the highly anticipated arrival of sophomore Jonquel Jones, who was finally eligible after sitting out a full year under NCAA transfer rules.
On the court together for the first time on Dec. 21 against North Carolina A&T, Nipe and Jones combined for 40 points in the Colonials' 80-54 romping of the Aggies.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The day after Christmas, Nipe drove to the basket in a drill at practice and her right knee buckled.
"When I get injured in practice I don't cry, but I was crying," Nipe said. "It was really tough because you just know in your gut what happened."
An MRI the next day confirmed what she had feared - the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee was completely torn.
That should have been the end of her career. The ACL is crucial for stabilizing the knee when turning and planting, and a torn one usually requires surgery for an athlete to continue playing at a high level. Nipe, who had already received a medical hardship during her sophomore campaign in 2010-11 after tearing the meniscus in her left knee, had played in too many games in 2013 to be eligible for another redshirt to return for a sixth season.
But she had played - and excelled - on a torn ACL before - during her senior year of high school when she tore the ligament in her other knee. So why not again?
Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis pulled Nipe aside at a team dinner to reveal the extent of her injury.
"He looked sad," Nipe said. "When we were in private he told me it was torn. I already knew what I was going to tell him - if it's torn, I'm going to play. I took a second to let it sink in, and then I told him, `Coach I want to do this, I want to play.' I don't think that's what he was expecting me to say."
"My first instinct was this is somebody who understands the end of her college career is in front of her and she wants to try to do anything possible to at least give herself a chance," Coach Tsipis said. "She's a fighter, so that didn't surprise me at all. I think she saw not only the personal success that she was having but the way the team was playing and somehow, some way she wanted to figure out how she could do it, but we also wanted to make sure she wasn't going to do any more damage that would affect her in the long range."
For three weeks Nipe worked with Assistant Athletic Trainer Chad Jones to retrain her knee to balance and stay stable without an ACL. Once the pain and swelling subsided, she began working on quick movements like changing direction, shuffling sideways and stopping. Eventually she got fitted for a brace, which added a whole new element to her game as she had to learn to run and shoot with an extra weight on her leg.
"It was all a process. I was still trying to figure it out even as I was playing," she added.
Incredibly, she missed just five games. On Jan. 16 at Dayton, in front of a national TV audience, she made her return to the court, coming off the bench to play 10 minutes and finishing with seven points on 3-of-5 shooting.
"The toughest part for me was expecting to come back and play almost like I had before I got hurt," Nipe said. "I was sitting on the bench itching to go in, sitting at the very front of the bench so Coach would notice me. When I did go in, I missed my first shot but then hit a three, and that's when I started to feel more confident in everything I was doing."
Without an ACL, Nipe had to make some adjustments to her game. She spent a lot of her spare time shooting in the gym with Associate Head Coach Megan Duffy.
"At the beginning of the season if my shots weren't falling I could attack the bucket," she said. "With one leg you're not going to beat anyone to the basket unless you already have the advantage, so I had to get smarter in how I was playing and be able to knock down more shots, get more accurate. I also had to be able to read screens a lot better so I could get more separation and space from my defender."
"She figured out exactly what she could do," Coach Tsipis said. "Her maturity level was so high. I think she learned what the limitation would be defensively, but offensively she accepted nothing less than how we put her in situations at the beginning of the year. Bringing her off the bench gave us such positive energy."
Nipe also spent extra time before and after practice every day continuing her rehab in the training room, and Jones would monitor her carefully during practice.
"There were still some things, even at the end of the season, that he'd pull me out of some drills," Nipe said. "I'm not going to be the person that attacks the bucket all the time, so when things like that came up I'd sit out, maybe shoot on the sideline."
Her playing time and production gradually increased as the calendar rolled to February. She scored 16 points against Rhode Island on Feb. 1, but she says the game when she first truly felt like herself again was against VCU on Feb. 13. With her parents in the stands, she poured in 19 points and made five threes as the Colonials downed the Rams, 80-62, in a key A-10 matchup on national television.
"That was the game where I really felt like I was back," Nipe said. "My shooting felt great, and I think from there on my shooting got better and better. Not once did I think about my leg; I didn't feel like I was being held back in any way physically. Having my family there helped boost me. They were just so happy to see me on the floor."
From that point forward, Nipe scored less than 10 points just once, finishing the season with double digits in seven straight games and nine of the last 10.
She scored 18 points with four three-pointers on Senior Day - her lone post-injury start - as GW knocked off No. 21 Dayton to clinch a tie for second place in the A-10 standings and earn a first-round bye in the league championship. She tallied 17 points with another four treys in the Colonials' quarterfinals win over defending champ Saint Joseph's.
Her most remarkable feat came in the Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). Knowing that each game of the single-elimination postseason tournament could be her last, Nipe averaged 16.3 points on 52 percent (13-of-25) shooting from the floor, 88.9 percent (8-of-9) from three-point range and 93.8 percent (15-of-16) from the foul line. She scored 20 points with three triples in three attempts against East Carolina in the first round as the Colonials won their first postseason game since 2008. In the final game of her career in GW's third-round loss at USF, she tallied 16 points and made 4-of-5 three-pointers.
"There was just that sense of urgency, knowing that all of a sudden there is a limited number of games left," Coach Tsipis said. "Obviously her play was stellar. She was unbelievable from the free throw line."
Another special moment occurred on Feb. 5 at Duquesne. Entering the game needing 12 points to reach 1,000 for her career - an achievement that seemed out of reach just six weeks earlier - she scored 13, hitting the milestone on a pair of late free throws that iced the Colonials' 80-68 come-from-behind win.
"The whole team was celebrating. It was really special," she said. "Right before Christmas break, Danni (Jackson) and I were talking about it because she had just gotten her 1,000th point and I was only about 70 points away. She said, `You're so close, Meg. You're going to come back and get it in the first few games.' I said, `Let's not talk about it until it happens,' and then we came back and I got hurt and neither of us mentioned it again. Then it happened and she said, `I told you that you were going to get it.'"
Nipe was honored by her fellow student-athletes after the season with the inaugural Dan Black Award, which was given to one female and one male student-athlete who best exemplify the attributes of GW strength and conditioning grad assistant Dan Black, who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident on Halloween.
Though she still has two classes this summer to finish her master's degree in strategic public relations, Nipe will walk across the stage on Saturday evening as part of the College of Professional Studies commencement. The ceremony fittingly takes place at the Charles E. Smith Center, the home of her incredible journey.
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