The Loss Within

Before stunning defeat, Wash. U.'s Robin Lahargoue blew out a knee, ending solitary sacrifice for a team that defines gender difference in athletics

They did not fear losing. They simply knew they could win.

And they did win. They came back after the streak broke and won the NCAA tournament that year for the fourth time in a row.

The Bears were now known not just for talent but for depth, the way they shared minutes and plain outworked their opponents.

Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Jennifer Silverberg
Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.
Jennifer Silverberg
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.

Lahargoue had played about three minutes in the NCAA finals even that lousy freshman year, her hands shaking as she took hold of the ball's rough surface. She'd played longer each year after. She could still feel the exhilaration of those tournaments, the way the urgency and adrenaline of now-or-never pushed them into ever-tighter unity.

Without need of ribbon, they thought and moved as one.

Of course, they had Tasha Rodgers then, an All-American now playing professional basketball in Sweden, and they had Alia Fischer, the most prolific female basketball player in Wash. U. history. Last spring, they lost not only those two but three other seniors, and Lahargoue couldn't imagine they'd play another undefeated season.

"What kind of a team are we going to be?" she and the other captains asked Fahey in September.

The coach thought a minute.

"Hardworking," she replied.

Lahargoue started her senior year with averages of 6.5 points per game and 3.6 rebounds. Between October and January, she nearly doubled both. The others improved, too. They'd never been a starstruck team, but now there were no stars; everyone shared the responsibility of winning.

And they won, and won, and won.

Lahargoue and Stuber looked at each other in amazement. Who'd have thought that without Tasha -- ? They began to dream of a fifth NCAA championship, a glorious end to their competitive basketball careers.

None of the seniors could bear to think past graduation. They couldn't imagine any substitute for the casual intimacy of those intense practice sessions, the sheer joy of the ball arcing through the air, the smooth miracle of a three-point goal.

The release of tension into something fast and strong and healthy and purposeful.

The way self-consciousness dissolved, giving way to something that mattered.

The steady building toward goal after goal, championship after championship.

Diligent by nature, Lahargoue started filling out job applications, hoping to combine basketball with her psychology major and nail a sports-marketing job, stay in the game that way. She wondered whether the mystical Bears confidence, that state of mind she'd learned to breathe into every movement, would carry into the rest of her life so that she never had to dwell on losses.

But the plans felt remote, and even her last semester of coursework felt a little abstract.

What felt real was playing.

She stayed in 36 minutes against Case Western Reserve on Jan. 13, and the Bears won easily. She waited for the scouting reports, knowing Coach would spend hours breaking down video of the other teams. She watched the younger players' faces, making sure they were getting enough sleep, staying focused, juggling classwork and romance and family issues without breakage.

At practice a few days after Case Western, she twisted to recover the ball. It was a move she'd made a thousand times before.

This time, she felt her knee snap.

Positive circle was very quiet the next day. This was the first calamity in a shockingly good season, and it had struck their top scorer.

Lahargoue plunged into the mechanical world of physical therapy -- so many minutes of heat, so many minutes of ice, stretching, strengthening.

A month later, she'd strengthened her injured leg with such a vengeance, it muscle-tested twice as strong as the healthy leg.

Meanwhile, playing seven games without her, the Bears still won. There was a little more drama -- in their second game against Case Western on Feb. 8, they trailed 39-31 at halftime. Fahey warned them not to rush back out thinking they had to score right away. They steadied themselves, remembered how it felt to win, and eased ahead, prevailing 75-62.

Two nights later, Lahargoue sneaked ahead of the technical OK to play five minutes of the Senior Night game. Her knee felt great, as normal as corn flakes for breakfast. By Feb. 15, the Brandeis game, she had the official green light to play.

Her body her own again, she scored 16 points, 12 of them in the second half as the Bears again came from behind to win.

Feb. 17 was the long-anticipated New York University game. Back in 1997, when Lahargoue was a high-school senior debating her future, the Bears had lost a game to NYU, then turned around and won 57 consecutive home games. Last year, after Fontbonne broke the 81-game streak, they had lost to NYU again, 65-64, then recovered and gone on to win the championship.

It was time to cream NYU.

Lahargoue scored 18 points and shot a perfect three-of-three from three-point range. The Bears won 78-60.

Back home, they had two whole luxurious days off before their next practice. Wednesday, they were back on the court running suicide drills, skipping backward, running at top speed in circles as intricate as a folk dance.

Ten minutes before practice ended, Lahargoue was doing a routine jab-stick-crossover, and she jumped, just a little, to shoot.

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