Jan. 22, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She tries to stay focused on the present, but occasionally Ataira Franklin thinks back to the days when she could run and jump without pain. As a ninth-grader at Riverdale Baptist, she was able to touch the rim, and in high school her athleticism gave her an enormous edge on the basketball court.

“These are things that I obviously can’t do-slash-don’t try to do any more,” Franklin, a four-year starter at UVa, “but part of growing up and maturing in your game is learning how to play through injury and having to adjust to those types of things. So I think that had I not been injured, my basketball IQ would not have developed to what it is now, just because I would have relied a little bit more on athleticism. I’ve learned to play smarter and play harder and know my body a little bit more.”

A 5-11 guard from Bowie, Md., Franklin has had three operations on her right knee since enrolling at Virginia in 2010. Her first injury at UVa was a torn meniscus in the fall of her second year, “and that kind of started my little snowball effect,” Franklin said.

Her knee problems have forced her to cut back on her practice and training regimens. Even so, Franklin will leave Virginia as one of the better players in the program’s history.

With 11 regular-season games remaining in her college career, she ranks fifth all-time at UVa in 3-pointers (167), 13th in steals (206) and 15th in points (1,417). She made the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2010-11, earned All-ACC honorable mention in 2011-12 and was named to the All-ACC first team last season.

As a senior, Franklin (12.5 ppg) is the Wahoos’ second-leading scorer, behind sophomore guard Faith Randolph (12.9). She’s made a team-high 28 treys and ranks second in assists (2.7 per game), third in rebounds (4.7) and third in steals (1.6).

Joanne Boyle succeeded Debbie Ryan as the Cavaliers’ head coach after the 2010-11 season. Does Boyle ever wonder what a healthy Ataira Franklin might have accomplished at UVa?

“I try not to think about it,” Boyle said Wednesday morning. “It is what it is. I’ve always seen glimpses of it, when she’s really feeling good, but those moments are fleeting in some ways.”

Still, Boyle added, the “thing you always appreciate about Frankie is that she doesn’t complain, and she’s going to be out there doing her best. You try as a coach to manage her to the best of her ability to get the most out of her in games.

“A lot of kids could have tanked over the course of the years with the amount of stuff that she’s had go on. She’s pretty resilient when it comes to facing the adversity of injuries and trying to do the best she can at taking care of her body and getting it ready for the season.”

Franklin hasn’t had a knee operation since last April, but in December she broke her nose in a collision with teammate Raeshaun Gaffney at practice. Since then, Franklin has worn a protective mask during every game.

Once there was little Franklin could not do on the court. “Now she’s just limited,” Boyle said.

“She really is a high basketball IQ kid — I mean really high — and because of that she’s been able to be an intelligent player and redefine her game. She knows what she can do and knows what she can’t do. She expends her energy on defense and, I think, she kind of manages herself offensively.”

Franklin had a huge impact at both ends of the courts in UVa’s most recent game. She finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds — her fourth career double-double — and had four assists and three blocked shots Sunday to help UVa knock off No. 17 Florida State 85-68 at John Paul Jones Arena.

For a team coming off 35-point loss to No. 3 Duke in Durham, the importance of Sunday’s win cannot be overstated.

“I think more than anything we needed that for our confidence,” Franklin said. “We’ve been pretty inconsistent. We come out and have this great performance against Notre Dame and we come up short, but then we go out in the Duke game and don’t really build on that.”

The `Hoos are nearing the end of a brutal four-game stretch. It started with the 79-72 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame at JPJ. Then came the debacle at Duke, followed by the upset of FSU. Now Virginia (9-9, 2-3) must face No. 6 Maryland (16-1, 4-0). The teams meet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at JPJ.

“I think for this game it’ll be key for us to prove that [the FSU game] wasn’t a fluke, that this is who we’re going to be as a team,” Franklin said.

The Cavaliers have dropped five straight in this series since upsetting the No. 11 Terrapins 60-57 in College Park on Feb. 13, 2011. Maryland has a decided height advantage on UVa, whose tallest player is 6-2, and Franklin will be needed even more than usual on the boards Thursday night.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Everyone knows we’re one of the smaller teams in the ACC, so any time you can kind of get in there, and even if you’re not getting the rebound, get some tips or even hit it out of bounds sometimes, it will give you a little bit of an advantage, because you’ll have a dead ball and you can set the defense. Anything you can do to help yourselves out.”

Franklin, whose parents played basketball at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of three seniors in the UVa program, along with Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe. (Gerson, who enrolled at the University in 2009, missed last season with an injury and is competing as a graduate student.)

All three came to UVa to play for Ryan, but their commitment to the program has never wavered.

“They just bought in,” said Boyle, a longtime friend of Ryan. “The three of them, they’re just really mature, and they get the bigger picture, and there’s no drama that goes on amongst them.

“They love Virginia. They love their team. They want to do well, and they’re very selfless. Frankie said to me one time that she wants to leave her legacy here, not only for herself but so that the underclassmen understand what she wants this program to be. So she’s very selfless in that way, really mature.”

Franklin’s major is studio art, with a concentration in photography, and she’ll graduate in May. She’s always liked to draw but figured she would have more career options in photography than in painting. Exactly what she’ll do after graduation, though, has yet to be determined.

“In my fantasy world, I would keep playing forever, but obviously with my knees that’s not the most realistic approach to things after college,” Franklin said. “But I’m hoping to get into some broadcasting. If not I’ll try to do something with my photography, and grad school’s always an option.”

Franklin turned 22 this month. She’s thankful that her teammates include Gerson, who’s 23.

“She saved me from being the old lady,” Franklin said, laughing.

Franklin knows she’s in the twilight of her college career, but she hasn’t thought much about her time at UVa. “I just try to stay focused and think more about the present,” she said. “I’ll reflect on that later and shed my little tears, but right now I try not to think about it too much.”

Her knee bothers her more some days than others. Franklin has learned to accept that.

“Right now I’m feeling a little bit old,” she said. “But earlier in the season the coaches did a great job of keeping my minutes down, and so I feel pretty good. I feel like where I am right now I’ll be able to maintain for a while. I don’t feel I’m getting any worse, so that’s always good. We’ll take that.”

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