For the second time in three years, Nia Irving was trying to recover from an injury as she began the high school basketball season.

This time, especially, it was more than worth it.

Irving averaged 22.5 points and 14 rebounds per game this season, leading the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A in both categories for the third straight year. She also led Lawrence High School to its first state title in 21 years. It was the third year in a row she was named KVAC Player of the Year. And this is also the third straight year Irving is the Morning Sentinel Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

As a freshman, Irving tore her meniscus in her right knee in an offseason basketball game. Last May, she was a few months removed from the end of her sophomore season when she tore her ACL and her meniscus in her left knee.

“I was in an AAU tournament in New Hampshire,” Irving said. “I stole the ball, and I was going up for a right-handed layup. I came to a jump-stop, and when I jumped the girl kind of hip-checked me. When I landed, I landed on it awkwardly. I felt it pop, and I heard it.”

The normal recovery time for an ACL injury is six to eight months. The longer end of that range would have caused Irving to miss much of her junior season.

“I knew even after the six-month mark, it takes you almost a year to really get back into full health,” she said. “I knew I had the season coming up in exactly six months, so I didn’t have time for any of it.

“Of course, I was really upset about it. I had started to really come out of my shell and generate some new moves. I thought I was playing pretty good. And then out of the blue — there was no signs, like, ‘Oh, my knee hurts badly.’ There was no sign of it before I tore it.”

Irving, a 6-foot-1 center, was cleared to play in early November, but still wasn’t really herself for another couple months.

“We did a little bit each day,” Lawrence coach John Donato said. “She was about 50 to 60 percent during preseason. By the first regular season game, she was about 70-75 percent. Every game, she did better, and better, and better. In the second half of the year, she was a force to be reckoned with.”

Irving’s highlights this season included her 1,000th career point, and a 23-point, 17-rebound performance as the Bulldogs scored a win against Bangor at home in a showdown between two undefeated teams. Yet it wasn’t until the playoffs that she stopped worrying about her knee.

“I know it took me a while for kind of the confidence role to play in, of thinking, ‘Nothing is going to happen. I’m OK,'” Irving said. “I think one of the breakthrough points on that was in the Messalonskee quarterfinal game. I got hit hard going up for a layup. I landed on that leg and I was like, ‘Oh, nothing happened.’ That was kind of my big breakthrough moment.”

That game against Messalonskee was a breakthrough for the team as well. The previous season ended with a loss to the Eagles in the quarterfinals — a crushing blow that the Bulldogs carried with them for a year.

“We had talked about how every day this season, leading up to playoffs, our goal was to get to the state championship game,” Irving said. “We said that the first day of tryouts. We didn’t want to get upset like we did last year. I think having that mentality in practice, of, ‘Oh, this could happen to us again,’ especially later in the season — I think we really started to gear up and get our minds into the game.”

Lawrence lost a rematch up in Bangor during the regular season, and the road to the state game also had a few potholes. The Bulldogs trailed at the half against both Brunswick and Bangor before rallying to win both games. Irving wasn’t always scoring big numbers, but she passed well and didn’t try to do too much.

“Everybody always had trick defenses, double and triple-teaming her,” Donato said. “They threw everything at her and at us, and we responded. It just made everybody around her better, that’s all.”

“There’s no way basketball’s a one-person team,” Irving said. “You can’t have a one-person team and expect to win games. I think that over the years everyone’s really jelled well. It just took us a while to kind of find our places, and find our momentum. I think once we all kind of found our spots, we all just stuck to them.”

In the state game against Thornton Academy, Lawrence had only 29 field goal attempts. Still, Irving was eight of 10 from the field and 11 of 12 from the foul line. After losing by six at halftime, the Bulldogs came back for a 50-43 victory.

“We knew that Thornton Academy couldn’t handle her 1-on-1, so we made it a focal point all week to get the ball inside to her,” Donato said. “And they’re a good team. They just couldn’t cover her inside.”

“I think our passing was a lot better,” Irving said. “We weren’t rushing into shots. I think we took a lot more higher-percentage shots. The more you pass the ball around, and the better looks you get, the better off of a chance you have. I think we just were a lot more patient that game, and it paid off.”

So just how good is Irving?

Good enough that Donato — who has over 500 career wins — calls her the best player he’s ever coached. According to Donato, Irving shot 41 of 47 (87.2 percent) on free throws during the playoffs.

“I’ve had some great players,” Donato said. “She’s the best one I’ve coached, I would say.”

Good enough that the University of Maine, which went 23-9 under coach Richard Barron this season, has offered Irving a full, four-year scholarship to play for the Black Bears.

“I was very excited, because I didn’t really expect that it was coming,” Irving said. “Coach Barron runs a great program. I’m just really excited that they wanted me to be a part of the team.”

Irving’s AAU season typically runs through July, and she said she wants to make a decision on her college choice sometime before the end of the season.

“It is overwhelming, because I really don’t want to stop playing basketball for Lawrence,” she said. “I love the team, and I love the coaching staff. I love the community and playing in front of them.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

Twitter: @Matt_DiFilippo


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