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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said that in the last week or so, she has briefly shut one eye while doing things, just to give herself an idea of how the world has looked to senior guard Melissa Jones since Feb. 27.
That day, Jones hit her head diving for a ball in a victory over Oklahoma. Ever since, she has had impaired vision in her right eye, the result of swelling around her optic nerve. Doctors have assured Jones that with time, her vision will return to normal.
But it's not there yet. Improvement came Wednesday as Jones said she now can detect light with that eye. She wears protective shades while playing, which makes her look a bit like a tourist who just wandered onto the court.
Well she looked that way only at tipoff. As soon as the game began, she was the same old Jones.
"Everybody in this room, close your right eye," Mulkey told the assembled media at Baylor's news conference after an 86-51 romp over Kansas in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.
Then, being a coach, Mulkey of course noticed how many of us actually closed the wrong eye.
|Melissa Jones lost the vision in her right eye after hitting her head while playing Feb. 27. The vision is returning, but she wears protective glasses in the meantime.|
"Close your right eye, not your left eye. And try to write on that pad of paper," she said, then joked, "Some of you can't write with two eyes."
True enough. But our eyes didn't deceive us about Jones, who played as if there wasn't a thing wrong with her.
"Can you believe what you just saw out of that kid today?" Mulkey asked.
Having covered the Big 12 since its inception in 1996-97, I've witnessed some very impressive feats of intestinal fortitude by players. Such as Jamie Carey resurrecting her career at Texas after it looked as if she was done playing due to multiple concussions. Missouri's Evan Unrau quickly learning to shoot left-handed and finishing out her sophomore season doing that after she'd broken a finger on her right hand. Baylor's Morghan Medlock competing as well as she did despite her mother being murdered during the 2008-09 season.
It's no surprise to have Jones included in such a list. Since she arrived at Baylor, Jones has always given the kind of effort that we all wish we gave to everything we did.
"The best way I can describe Melissa Jones is that, after my 15 years in this league, she's a player I respect as much as anyone who's ever been first-team All-Big 12 or All-American," said Kansas State coach Deb Patterson, whose Wildcats are next up for top-seeded Baylor in Friday's semifinals. "She brings all elements of the game to her team and is that foundation piece. She just makes it go for them.
"She intelligent, she's unselfish, she does the little things. And makes plays at a time when the game needs a game-changing play."
Wednesday, Baylor didn't need any of those types of plays, because it had made several game-establishing plays that by halftime shut the door on even the faintest hope Kansas had of an upset.
And it was Jones who set the tone. She hit a 3-pointer to open the game, grabbed a steal, got three assists and pulled down two rebounds. That was all in the first five minutes.
Jones finished with 8 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, playing 25 minutes. It was her second game since the injury; she also played the regular-season finale at Colorado.
Melissa's presence on the floor makes us better. She is everything a coach dreams of coaching.” -- Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on Melissa Jones
Jones is one of those instinctive rebounders who usually seem to be in the right place an uncanny amount of the time. She has no peripheral vision on one side now, but that didn't affect her rebounding.
"I still know where to go to get a rebound," Jones said. "So I can still read that. It's just, I guess, a little bit difficult to still see exactly what I need to.
"The glasses are primarily for my good eye, for protection. Heaven forbid something happen to that one; I'd be out of luck entirely."
Actually, knowing Jones, she'd probably try to play by sense of smell then. In all seriousness, though, Baylor is taking every precaution with Jones, who was cleared medically to play but still puts her own conditions on her court time.
"She said, 'If I do play, just don't let me be taking away from somebody else that could be doing it better,'" Mulkey said.
Suffice to say, the only reason Jones left the floor Wednesday was that the game was so well in hand that Baylor was able to clear its bench. The entire team played well, with 12 of the 13 who got in scoring at least two points.
Forward Destiny Williams had one of her best games of the season, finishing with a team-high 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting. She also had eight rebounds. Center Brittney Griner had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. And freshman guard Odyssey Sims had nine points and six assists.
Williams said the entire team gets a lift from the attitude Jones brings.
"She's mentally tough and physically tough -- not just anybody can do what she does," Williams said. "If I had to pick anybody as a teammate, I'd choose MJ. Everybody on the team would say that. And she is probably the most complete player on this team, as far as rebounding, posting up, shooting, taking it off the dribble."
Mulkey has played alongside, coached, or coached against many of the best players ever in women's basketball. She rates Jones as one of the toughest competitors.
"She's kind of in a category by herself," Mulkey said. "She's not a player that I can say, 'She reminds me of this player or that player.' She is in her own little league, and it's because of practice. It's what I see every day from her. She plays so hard; it's nothing for her to throw her body around.
"I've said this many times, and I'll say it again: If I'm a WNBA scout, I've got to give Melissa Jones a look. Now, I'm saying that, and I've got a 6-8 phenom. I've got a point guard that's a phenom. But Melissa's presence on the floor makes us better. She is everything a coach dreams of coaching."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.