In the movie “Rocky III,” when Clubber Lang is asked his prediction for the fight between he and Rocky Balboa, his one-word snarling response was “pain.”
Clubber, as Rocky fans know, won the first bout, but Rocky came back in the rematch and reclaimed the title in a knockout.
The same could be said of Lilley Vander Zee and her recent bout with pain. At first it seemed to get the best of her, even with medical advice that she not play in Tuesday night’s bidistrict game against Cleburne.
But Vander Zee, like Rocky, wasn’t about to stay down. Despite having her right hand wrapped because of a broken knuckle on her pinky finger, she played – and had perhaps the best game of her high school career.
Grimacing with almost every touch of the ball, the University of Texas signee scored a dozen points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots in a 54-33 win over Cleburne.
Oh, she’s put up better numbers, but she’s never given a gutsier performance. The slightest touch of the ball was enough to bring tears to her eyes, which were red as she fought back pain for post-game interviews.
“On a scale of 1-10, it’s about a 25,” she said, managing a grin.
“The worst part is the throbbing.”
Vander Zee was playing with virtually one arm. She’s right-handed, but played mostly left-handed. Almost every rebound was one-handed, and that giant swooping left hand sent would-be Cleburne scorers scrambling in shame.
Once, Vander Zee blocked a shot, the ball went right back to the Cleburne shooter, who tried again. Vander Zee blocked it again, and then grabbed the rebound – all with a single hand.
“At halftime she told me, ‘Ashley, it hurts,’” said Ashley Bonugli. “I told her to think about how good it’s going to feel after we win this game.
“Then I said hakuna matana, that’s like her favorite phrase.”
It means “no worries,” for those who aren’t familiar with the famous slogan from the “Lion King.”
Which, if folks had listened to Vander Zee over the weekend, is what she was trying to tell them. It didn’t matter what others said, she was going to play, she insisted.
And, she admitted that might have factored into getting last-minute medical permission to play even though the early prognosis was no go.
“Yeah, I was pretty persistent,” she said with a smile. “But come on, I’m a senior.
“But they didn’t need me to win this game.”
Maybe not, but they were sure inspired. Bonugli, who led all scorers with 14 points, said seeing Vander Zee out there fighting through the pain, lifted her up.
“It definitely made us more excited,” she said.
“I am very impressed with her.”
Likewise for coach Leta Andrews.
“Great players play when they are hurt, and Lilley gave a very gutty performance tonight,” said Andrews.
“I’ve seen a lot of players go out there and push through pain, and I’m proud of Lilley.”
It may be a cliche, but it literally was painful to watch Vander Zee Tuesday. I wasn’t alone in amazement at the scoring table as she humbled the all-guard lineup Cleburne started in anticipation of her absence or her inability to be a factor in the game.
Not only did it hurt when she touched the ball, but post players typically get knocked around under the basket in even a normal setting. Not that Cleburne players were doing anything dirty, but they play a physical style, as indicated by Granbury shooting 36 free throws – 11 by Vander Zee (she made four, again shooting left-handed).
“I knew they were going to foul me,” Vander Zee said. “It was rough out there.”
I get a paper cut and I’m out of commission for a week. And here’s a girl out there with a broken bone doing things most of us can’t do on our healthiest day.
After a stellar high school career, Vander Zee had nothing to prove to anyone even before this game.
But she did anyway.
Somewhere, Apollo Creed is smiling.
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