TAMPA — The stage is set for Ashley McWilliams' biggest night in basketball.
Tonight at 7, the 5-foot-7 senior guard will attempt to lead the Academy of the Holy Names girls basketball team on the road against Fort Myers Dunbar High, the No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A and a state semifinalist last season.
With a victory, the Jaguars (21-8) advance to the 4A state final four. The program last reached the state semifinals in 2007 and won its only state title in 1996.
McWilliams isn't nervous, and she is not even intimidated. It's just basketball. And those 32 regulation minutes on the court tonight won't compare to the 101⁄2 challenging months of rehab after suffering a season-ending injury in 2012.
“I have to believe in what I've done,” she said. “The last year-and-a-half has been real roller-coaster. I know I've worked for this, and I'll play the best I can (tonight).”
As a junior, McWilliams led Holy Names to a 7-3 start and was averaging 20.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.9 steals and 3.6 assists. Then, on Dec. 21, 2012, during the Seffner Christian Holiday tournament, her season came to a crashing halt. With 30 seconds left against Strawberry Crest in the tournament semifinals, McWilliams drove to the basket for a layup, but she landed awkwardly on her knee. She was carried to the bench, where she watched her team win in overtime.
An MRI revealed a torn ACL and partial tear of her meniscus. McWilliams had surgery to remove a piece of her hamstring tendon to replace the torn ACL in January 2013.
For weeks, it was painful to walk. Five months passed before she was fit to jog. In the meantime, she lifted weights vigorously and would shoot baskets on a hoop in her driveway while sitting in a chair to maintain her form.
In addition to missing her high school season, McWilliams missed the summer AAU circuit, a time when rising seniors display their talents in front of college scouts in national-exposure tournaments.
“That was really hard,” she said. “I just kept hoping for the best.”
November had arrived, and the 2013-14 high school season was quickly approaching. McWilliams, however, had not been cleared to play. During the rehabilitation process, she suffered several setbacks.
“My hamstring really set me back,” she said. “Every time I pushed myself, I would strain it. I'm trying to get back in basketball shape.”
McWilliams failed an initial test that determined if she was fit to return. She missed the team's first two games of the season.
A new test weeks later would reveal the news she had been waiting nearly a year to receive.
Physically, she had rebuilt her knee. Mentally, she was unsure if it would stay that way.
“It wasn't the pain, it was the fear,” she said. “I was so scared. It wasn't something like your arm you could protect. It was something you used all the time, and it could be hit so easily. I would baby it. It took 101⁄2 months to get there, and one move can ruin this.”
Week by week, game by game, McWilliams improved. Behind McWilliams, Holy Names clinched the top seed in the 4A-District 9 tournament.
“It was a comfort thing,” said Holy Names coach Chris Severini. “She had to get comfortable with handling the ball again. The little things had to come back to her. Her agility had to come back.”
Said McWilliams: “It's still in the back of my mind when I do certain things. I'm 85-90 percent back to where I was.”
McWilliams is averaging a team-best 13.1 points per game, along with 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 2.4 assists.
In the region quarterfinal against Lakeland McKeel, she had a triple-double with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
No matter what happens tonight, Severini knows McWilliams won't go down without a fight.
“It's everything to her,” he said. “This game, this school, the kid breathes it. She's all about it.”
“We earned this spot,” McWilliams said. “I think my team is pretty confident where we are right now.”