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When asked about the moment “it” happened again, Paulisha Kellum takes a deep breath, looks skyward for a moment and calmly explains the familiar feeling.

“It” is the three letters no athlete wants to hear – ACL. For Kellum, three is also the number of times she has received that diagnosis after injuring one of her knees.

As a high school basketball player at Bishop McNamara in Forestville, Md., Kellum was a three-time honorable mention All-America selection by Street & Smith’s and averaged 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game for the Lady Mustangs, who were ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today during Kellum’s career.

Despite suffering two separate tears to an anterior cruciate ligament, she came back from the injuries and took her talents to the University of Virginia to play for head coach Debbie Ryan in 2006-07.

After two successful seasons in the program, including a breakout season in 2007-08 in which she was named the Cavaliers’ Most Improved Player, expectations were high as Kellum entered her junior year in 2008-09.

The Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leader in assists, former Cavalier Sharneé Zoll, had graduated the prior spring and Kellum seemed to be the heir apparent to the point guard position.

Then, in a preseason scrimmage, “it” happened again.

“Going into the scrimmage, I was excited for the season to start and to see our hard work pay off,” she recalled. “It was right at the end of preseason when it happened, so I was just excited. I was playing full-court defense and when I went to plant to turn the other way, my knee just went out right in front of our bench. You can see it on the tape, everyone kind of stood up and it was a scary moment. When I went down, I knew it was bad because I have been through it twice before. Knowing that I couldn’t walk on my own afterwards, and knowing I couldn’t really put pressure on my knee after the game, it looked all too familiar. In my mind, I knew, but I didn’t want to be pessimistic, but I knew it was going to require surgery.”

A third ACL surgery could arguably end a career. But Kellum was determined to not let that happen.

“I immediately thought that I wanted to come back,” she said. “I knew I would be watching from the sidelines during that year, but I always knew I wanted to rehab and be back the next year.”

After a year of being on the sidelines, Kellum returned last season for the Cavaliers and was a key role player in helping them to their third-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Highlighted by a career-high 25-point performance against South Dakota State at the Junkanoo Jam in Freeport, Bahamas, Kellum was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

She ended the 2009-10 season averaging 5.8 points per game while also providing valuable leadership and experience to a young Cavs’ squad.

This year, she returns for her final year of eligibility with even more anticipation.

“A lot is expected of me, and I expect a lot out of myself,” Kellum said. “Communication – being a coach on the floor. Practice, conditioning, no matter what it is I have to be vocal. Right now I have the most experience on the team on and off the court. I’ve been through a lot and know what it takes.”

She is one of two seniors – Jayna Hartig is the other – on a team that features five sophomores and three freshmen.

Kellum says her teammates describe her as “grandma” – which to her means that she’s been at Virginia a long time and is still recovering from her injury.

“I’m the grandmother of the team. We joke about it a lot,” she said. “They respect me and my position though. We joke about it but I’m here to play. Just because I’m a grandma doesn’t mean I can’t do everything they do on the court.”

Her coach agrees. Ryan said that Kellum is entering this season healthier than she was last year.

Kellum echoed her coach’s thoughts. “This season I’m coming back full force and I’m feeling better day by day,” she said. “Once the season starts, I’m having a different mindset to keep pushing through everything no matter how painful it might be, and I’m sure other people are going to step up as well.”

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