By Joey Johnston, Times Correspondent
TAMPA — Coaches often point to "intangibles" — the subtle positive qualities that usually don’t show up in the box score — when praising their key players.
But University of Tampa women’s basketball coach Tom Jessee has a different definition when describing the value of center Molly Franson.
"She’s a very, very tangible kid for us," Jessee said. "I think it’s pretty cut-and-dried. We need her. It’s easily quantifiable."
Before Wednesday’s game at Palm Beach Atlantic, the Spartans were 16-2 with Franson in the lineup — and 0-5 when she was out with injury.
Franson, a 6-foot-2 senior who averages 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds, is a team-first performer who can pick up her offensive game when needed. Most often, though, she gives the Spartans a defensive presence and is a player who contributes in all areas.
Maybe that’s why it seemed so traumatic Jan. 10 when Franson crumpled to the court in a game at Rollins. She was in tears as she was helped off the court with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. She left on crutches and the bus ride home was silent.
"She’s done," Jeesse said the next day. "It changes the whole dynamics of everything. It’s a tough way for somebody’s career to end. We have no choice but to move on."
The Spartans have moved on. But in a quirk of unexpected fate, Franson wasn’t done. Her left knee MRI came back clean. Now she’s wearing a cautionary brace. All along, given any semblance of an opportunity, Franson said she knew she’d try to return.
Franson said she was born without patella tracks, which hold the kneecaps in place. Because of athletics, Franson was prone to subluxations or dislocations when her kneecaps slipped out of place.
She had protective surgery on her right knee during high school. After spending her first two seasons at Northern Kentucky University, Franson had the same surgery on her left knee, forcing a medical redshirt season in 2016-17 when she arrived at UT.
When Franson was injured at Rollins, she said her left kneecap again slipped out of the socket and she was initially shocked.
"I’m down on the court thinking, ‘I can’t believe this has happened again,’ " Franson said. "Nobody told me it could. I thought surgery would prevent it. But it popped out and back, kind of like twisting your ankle.
"It was very painful. It probably looked worse than it was. I was hoping for the worst and expecting the best. Once I got good news, I knew I’d be coming back."
After the five-game absence, Franson’s re-emergence has provided new life for the Spartans and their hopes to win the Sunshine State Conference tournament title.
"It has been a huge mental lift for our kids," Jessee said. "When she got hurt, the air went out of us that night. When she came back, the air came back, too.
"You never want to see anybody get hurt like that, particularly a great person like Molly. Now we have a chance to finish this season in the right way."
Franson, from the Chicago suburbs, began playing basketball at age 9 and always felt comfortable in her own skin. She has worked to make her height into an advantage.
"I’m the tallest person in my family — and I have three older brothers," Franson said. "When I was younger, I don’t know if I loved it, but I never made it into an issue. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m tall. What can I do about it? That’s me.’ I accepted it. I couldn’t make myself smaller.
"I just started buying heels last year and that was a shift. I had never worn heels or tried to be taller. But I thought, ‘Hey, I’m already tall. I might as well match my shoes with my outfit.’ It really hasn’t been a big deal."
Franson’s stature has been an obvious advantage in basketball. It has carried her to UT, where she’s a business management major. She has another season of eligibility remaining, but is uncertain about a return. Hedging her bets, she knows she will participate in this season’s senior night.
"My family will come down for it," Franson said. "Better to have one senior night for sure. No mater what, I will have great memories. I’m hoping to get a (championship) trophy. That’s the goal for all of us.
"When I got hurt, it was sad. It was kind of like grief. As it turns out, the mental part is more difficult than the physical part. But you can’t play scared. Anything could happen to anybody. I’m just glad I have another chance at it because that would’ve been a horrible ending. Now we’re back chasing the happy ending."