Brittany Carnago ready to return after ACL injury

Last season ended before it began for junior center Brittany Carnago.

Carnago, a stalwart for the Oakland University women’s basketball team, went up for a rebound just two minutes into the team’s final exhibition game against Western Ontario — something she did 174 times her sophomore season — but when she came down, she did not make it back to the other end of the court.

Carnago landed awkwardly and crumbled to the floor in pain with a torn ACL in her left knee.

“When it happened, I went ‘Holy cow, that’s bad,’ because I know her. She twists or bangs something and gets right back up,” head coach Beckie Francis, said. “The fact that she screamed and was rolling around, I knew she was done.”

The 6-foot-4 center started 32 games her sophomore season, averaging 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, and 2.1 assists per game on her way to earning an All-Summit League honorable mention. She also recorded the first triple-double in the Summit League since 2006 (14 points, 11 blocks, 10 rebounds against Centenary) and set the Oakland women’s basketball single-season record in blocks with 89.

A welcomed return

Now, returning as a redshirt junior, Carnago hopes to return to the form she had before the injury. Coach Francis is also thrilled to have her center back, admitting the loss of Carnago was a major obstacle for the Golden Grizzlies last season.

“Now that last season is over, we can all admit that it was devastating,” Francis said. “We all tried to pretend that ‘oh, it doesn’t matter, we can still win it,’ that’s what you have to do as a coach. But if I felt devastated, I’m assuming the other players felt the same way. We did finally rebound, finishing in second (in the Summit League) and having a phenomenal year, but it took a lot of convincing early on.”

The lack of Carnago’s intimidating presence in the post was immediately felt, as the Grizzlies lost to the University of Detroit in their very next game. The Titans shot 46 percent from the field and outrebounded OU, 42-36.

“It really affected the rotations defensively because she’s such a shot blocker. The way we were teaching defense, everyone had to trust that Britt was going to be in the paint,” said Francis. “We were working denials real hard, forcing the ball handler to go backdoor, and then we got totally exposed in the Detroit home opener.”

The sudden hole in Oakland’s starting lineup forced the Grizzlies to adjust on the fly — and play a much smaller lineup.

While she was likely to earn significant playing time anyway, possibly even start, sophomore Bethany Watterworth was thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman once Carnago went down.

Watterworth, a 5-foot-11 recruit from Lake Orion, was forced into the starting lineup for the Grizzlies and went on to have a standout season. She averaged 13.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game on the way to being named to the All-Summit League second team.

It took some time and adjustment, but Carnago was eventually looked to as a vocal teammate during practices and games, as well as another coach on the bench.

“It was quite the struggle, but once I came to accept it and got over the fact that I’d be out for the entire season, I just took it as more of a learning perspective that I could sit on the bench and learn from the coaches and players,” Carnago said. “I learned a lot about handling the ups and downs of a game, fighting through turnovers, tendencies of the girls on my team, things like that.”

Coming back strong

Now that the St. Clair native is 100 percent healthy, Carnago isn’t sure whether there is a team in the conference that can stop the frontcourt duo.

“I think we’re going to be quite the threat this year,” Carnago said. “She’s great at scoring, such a good offensive threat, and defensively, she can shut girls down. We play really well together, so I think we can definitely complement each other and I can get her the ball when she’s posting up inside and vice versa.”

The frontcourt duo will also have the benefit of a strong supporing cast. Oakland returns starting guards Sharise Calhoun and Victoria Lipscomb as well.

With rehab behind her and team workouts set to begin two weeks earlier than in previous seasons, Carnago returns to the court with a newfound perspective gained from the season off.

“I say that I’m not going to be tentative, and I don’t plan on being, but I’m sure I’ll be a little iffy in my mind,” Carnago said.

“That’s another thing I’ve learned, too — you can’t hold back during games because you never know when it’s going to be taken away.”