When senior guard Ashley Russell joined Penn women’s basketball as a freshman, the odds were already stacked against her.
As difficult as it is for any student athlete to come into a new environment, Russell had to do it while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. So before she even stepped onto a collegiate court, her career was in jeopardy.
“In the beginning of my freshman year, I couldn’t really do anything besides lift weights with my arms,” Russell said. “I had a little bit of a setback at some points, like I couldn’t run exactly when I was supposed to, so that made me frustrated.”
Russell was a three-sport athlete at Braintree High School in Massachusetts, playing volleyball and lacrosse along with hoops. After leading her basketball team to a second consecutive state championship, she was set to join the Quakers in the fall of 2015.
First, however, Russell was going to play a final season of high school lacrosse in the spring. She had stayed healthy throughout the entire season. And then, it happened.
“[The ACL tear] was very unexpected. It was my last game of my senior year, and I was really shocked. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Russell said. “Before even playing lacrosse, I asked [coach Mike McLaughlin] if I could, because I knew I’m going to college to play basketball. He said, ‘Do your thing, enjoy your senior year.’ And then I did that.”
The road to recovery was a tough one for Russell, but she was certainly not alone. She and her older sister, Taylor, had played basketball together throughout their childhood and in high school. And when Ashley suffered her injury, Taylor knew exactly what she was going through.
“I was able to see my sister go through the same process. She tore both of her ACLs before me,” Ashley said. “She tore one ACL before I got to high school and then the other ACL while I was on the team with her. … I was able to see her come back stronger than ever, so at least being able to see that gave me hope in the beginning when it was really tough.”
About seven months after not being able to walk after the surgery, Russell made her Penn debut on New Year’s Eve of 2015 against BYU-Hawaii. In that game, she knocked down a three-pointer, collected two rebounds, and nabbed a steal. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.
Each year, her game has made a significant jump. After playing just 7.6 minutes per game in her first season, Russell is now a player that McLaughlin can’t take off the court.
“She’s grown and matured [since coming to Penn],” McLaughlin said. “She came in her freshman year and was just getting her feet wet. Sophomore year, she started to really contribute; then junior year, she takes that starting role and just matured and grew and played more of a complementary type of position with Michelle [Nwokedi] and Anna [Ross] here. And then now you see what she does this year in a different role. So she’s shown that regardless of what situation she’s in she has made the team better.”
As McLaughlin mentioned, Russell started for the Quakers last season but was much more of a role player with Nwokedi and Ross in their final years at Penn. Nevertheless, she managed to do just about everything for the team, as she averaged 7.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 37.3 percent from beyond the arc.
This season, Russell has more than just picked up where she left off. She is averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. In addition, despite handling the ball on almost every possession, she commits just 1.7 turnovers per contest.
While these numbers alone are impressive, they don’t tell the full story of Russell’s impact on the game and on her teammates. The level of intensity that she brings to the court has become her trademark, and at times, it seems as if she knows where the ball is going to be before it even gets there.
“I remember coming in, playing basketball [at Penn], and I’m just like, ‘She just gets every ball. Is she just in the right place at the right time or does she have a magnet on her hand?’” junior guard Kendall Grasela said half-jokingly.
“She’s definitely an energy-giver; she gives us all energy when she gets a loose ball, when she gets an offensive rebound,” Grasela added. “It definitely carries over and brings up our team in times that are not going our way.”
As a result of her tremendous impact on the court, Russell has earned no shortage of accolades. In high school, along with being a two-time Massachusetts state champion, she was a two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year, two-time Miss ESPN Boston, two-time league MVP ... the list goes on.
And on Wednesday, she earned her first collegiate postseason honor by being placed on the All-Ivy second team.
These individual awards are nice, but for Russell, all that really matters is how the team is doing. She has gotten accustomed to winning: Braintree went 95-7 in her four years there, and she has won a Big 5 championship and three Ivy League titles with the Red and Blue.
“My main goal is having a successful team. I’m not one to care about my personal statistics; I want the team to win at the end of the day,” Russell said. “No matter what I do, no matter what someone else does, I want our team to have more points than the other team at the end of the game.
“I want that to be contagious on the team, because if you have a whole team that has that type of mindset, there is no other option than to be successful.”
When McLaughlin was recruiting Russell four years ago, he had a feeling that she would turn out to be the player she is today.
“It just doesn’t surprise me that her projection has been constantly going forward,” McLaughlin said. “She’s a winner in every way. She’s won state high school championships, she was the player of the year in her state. She’s done everything she’s done at Penn — rebounds, assists, steals — and won. I think she’s having a magnificent senior year, and I’m just really happy for her. I love to see someone who works so hard that ends up at the top.”
Russell had a mountain to climb in fall of 2015. She was in a new city, part of a new team, and she couldn’t even run. But she took another step forward every day and never abandoned her team-first mentality. And as a result, like McLaughlin said, she has just about reached the top.