Laiken Valentine drove in for a layup, much like she had numerous times throughout her career, but this time something was different.
The four-year starting point guard for the Johnstown-Monroe High School girls basketball team heard a pop and felt a burning sensation near her left knee early in the third quarter Dec. 12 in a 72-32 win over Watkins Memorial.
This wasn't supposed to happen in her senior season.
"I heard the pop and it felt like a calf cramp," Valentine said. "I really thought it was a cramp, but it wouldn't go away. It was a burning sensation behind my knee.
"It felt like someone was taking a knife and stabbing me behind the knee. I went online and looked up everything I could on ACLs. I wanted to know what I was in for."
The prognosis wasn't bad, but could have been better. Valentine had no knee damage, but she tore her hamstring where it connected to her calf muscle. She was expected to be out until Feb. 1.
"That killed me," said Valentine, whose team is 22-2 after defeating 21st-seeded Linden-McKinley 103-21 on Feb. 20 in the second round of the Division II district tournament. "It's my senior year and I only had so many games left. I wanted to get back as soon as I possibly could."
Valentine had therapy sessions three times a week and worked to get back into playing shape -- she returned in less than a month. She dressed for a game Jan. 9 against Heath and played against Northridge on Jan. 11 before she was full-go against Newark Catholic on Jan. 16.
"I could tell that I wasn't myself against Northridge," said Valentine, who scored nine points in a 54-18 win over the Vikings. "I really wasn't back until we played Newark Catholic (60-59 loss). That was a big game and I really wanted to be back for that one."
"It was a big bonus getting Laiken back sooner than expected, and she seems to be 100 percent," coach Carl Dufford said. "She has better stamina than anticipated because she did a lot of work on the (exercise) bike and other things to maintain herself."
She also was able to watch games from another vantage point, an unexpected benefit from her time on the sideline. Defenses and offensive sets have a different look from the bench compared to when a point guard is bringing the ball up the court.
"It's nice to be able to see things evolving," Valentine said. "I think I see things differently than before. You see plays open up or close, so now I have a better idea of why coaches are calling certain things.
"Also, you see your teammates from a different point of view and you see what they do well and you see what situations get them frustrated. That helps a lot."
That attention to detail is one aspect that makes Valentine successful.
"Laiken is a good student of the game," Dufford said. "It's one of those things that she has gotten better and better and understands the game inside and out. She picks up things on the court even before I see it."
Through 22 games, the 5-foot-6 Valentine was averaging 6.1 points, 6.6 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 steals.
"You have to be a leader as a point guard and be able to sort things out," said Valentine, who is the program leader in assists. "You have coach yelling at you to do one thing and teammates yelling for the ball up court. You have to know when to pass and when to shoot the ball, but I think the point guard mostly passes the ball."
Valentine had five assists with two points as the top-seeded Johnnies defeated 22nd-seeded Marion-Franklin 84-14 on Feb. 17 in a first-round district game. Natalie Carpenter scored 24 points and Makenzie Spang had 18 points with 11 rebounds. Paige Cannon scored 13 points, Kerrigan Williams had 10 and Maddi Luke added nine.
Against Linden, the Johnnies surpassed the 100-point mark for the first time in program history and 14 players scored. Johnstown led 54-8 at halftime.
Cannon had 28 points, six rebounds and six assists, while Carpenter had 24 points and five assists. Spang had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Valentine had 14 points and five assists.
The Johnnies advanced to a district semifinal for the fourth consecutive season, but their first in Division II. They play at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at New Albany against seventh-seeded Brookhaven, which is 13-7.
The district final is 7 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at New Albany against second-seeded Eastmoor Academy or 13th-seeded Lakewood. Eastmoor is 18-6 and lost to the Johnnies 61-56 on Nov. 27.
Lakewood improved to 7-16 by defeating 11th-seeded Beechcroft on Feb. 20. Johnstown swept the Lancers in LCL play, winning 60-32 on Dec. 21 and 65-34 on Feb. 1.
The district champion advances to a regional semifinal March 4 at Springfield.
"It doesn't seem real that we're already into the tournament and any game could be my last," Valentine said. "I've played with these girls since youth league and to think my final home game (was Feb. 20). Now we have to make the most of these final games. Only (six) more until the state final, that's where we want to be."