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One year after ACL injury, Christian Ings looks to catch his stride in MEAC play for Norfolk State

Exactly one year ago, Norfolk State guard Christian Ings’ season was cut short right as Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play began.

Ings tore his ACL two minutes into the Spartans’ MEAC opener against Maryland Eastern Shore on a routine play about which he can still tell you every detail.

“I got the offensive rebound, brought it out, I passed it to Joe (Bryant) and Joe passed it back to me,” Ings recounted last week. “He wanted me to go at the defender, so I took him baseline. He was gonna cut me off, so I tried to stop and cut back and I think he might have stepped on my foot or something.”

In the moment, Ings said he tried to keep his focus away from how serious the injury was and was trying to get back up and start playing again.

“I just felt my knee snap, crackle and pop — no Rice Krispies — and it was excruciating,” Ings said. “I just remember falling on the ground, don’t even remember what happened to the basketball. I was just there. … I’ve never really been hurt before, but I just felt like the pain that came from my knee in that situation, I could feel it was something wrong.”

The injury brought Ings’ season to an abrupt close. Ings was only able to play in 13 games last season. The Philadelphia native was averaging 10.1 points, 3.5 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game before he got hurt.

Having an early exit in any sport can take a toll on you, especially when you have to sit on the bench and watch your teammates when you feel like you can help. Ings said there were certainly times he missed being on the court, but that he learned a lot while on the Spartans’ bench.

“It really helped me out,” Ings said. “… I learned a lot about my teammates, a lot about the game, the coaching staff, how the crowd reacts. There’s a lot of things that you kind of miss when you’re on the court that you can really pay attention to when you’re on the bench.”

Unfortunately, Ings had to sit back and watch Norfolk State lose a close one to Howard in the MEAC title game last season. Spartans head coach Robert Jones said had Ings – who he and the team call “Philly”, a nod to Ings’ hometown – been healthy then Norfolk State likely would have won. Jones said Ings’ presence took some pressure off of Joe Bryant last year.

“I think we would’ve cut down both nets, the regular season and the tournament because he was such an integral piece,” Jones said. “You can see even in The Scope, Joe was huffing and puffing a little bit more than he was when Philly was around because Philly took on a lot of those other roles and now, Joe could play off the ball and things like that.”

The road to recovery was a long one for Ings. He couldn’t fully participate when the team traveled to Puerto Rico last summer for a series of exhibitions and was cleared just before the season started.

“In Puerto Rico, I didn’t get to play,” Ings said. “I was shooting shots on the side whenever I could but I wasn’t allowed to play just yet. I think November was the month where I was finally clear to start working out and practicing a little bit – not too much contact but really getting out there and working on my game again. It was a long 10-month grind, but in November they let me back in.”

In Ings’ first game back from his ACL injury he looked like he hadn’t skipped a beat. The point guard only played 11 minutes but logged six points, two rebounds, a steal and an assist. Perhaps the most telling sign that Ings was back was when he rose up to dunk on a Penn State Wilkes-Barre defender. Although he missed the dunk, the air that Ings caught was enough of a signal that his knee was feeling alright.

“When I hurt my knee it was more of like a freak accident,” Ings said. “For me not to get hurt while jumping, I felt like there was no reason for me to be scared to jump again. I love to jump, it’s like my favorite thing to do. So when I saw an opportunity to jump in the game, I had the adrenaline and I just wanted to make a statement. Like yeah, I’m still around, I’m still getting there, I’m still getting better. If anyone is wondering, I still can jump.”

Though he may have missed that specific dunk, there have been plenty more for Ings this season. Ings is third on the team in scoring with 8.1 points per game and is second on the team in assists.

Ings earned an All-MEAC preseason first-team nod in October and has been living up to it. Jones said having Ings for MEAC play this year will be a huge advantage for the Spartans, adding that while he’s a good player in his own right, he can also supplement Jamarii Thomas similarly to his role with Bryant last year.

“To have Philly back with Jamarii … it takes some burden off of Jamarii always having to have the ball when Philly is there,” Jones said. “And of course, Philly can score. I mean, it’s not like we talk about Philly like he’s a bad player — he’s preseason first-team all-conference. So we expect him to be first-team all-conference when it’s all said and done.”

Before Norfolk State’s MEAC opener against South Carolina State on Saturday, Ings said he was excited to show his conference foes what he was capable of. Ings started and played 32 minutes against the Bulldogs, tallying 10 points, four assists, two rebounds and a steal.

Ings said he still deals with occasional knee soreness, but his goal is to continue to put his “best foot forward” and do anything that Jones and his teammates need him to do to ensure a MEAC title in March.

“I could do a lot better, I could have done a lot better but also know that I’m still healing,” Ings said. “I’m still getting my body back to where it used to be and where I want it to be, and even better. So I know there’s a lot more that I can do, but I’m just working. I feel like I’m having a good season right now and I’m just trying to catch my stride again.”

Michael Sauls, michael.sauls@virginiamedia.com, (757) 803-5774