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I had to make a comeback
Healthy once again, Melson key to Lady Eagles success
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Junior guard Ashley Melson is enjoying a break-out year for the Lady Eagles. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    A disappointing sophomore year was all the motivation Ashley Melson needed.
    Her career at Georgia had started off so promisingly — complete with Southern Conference all-freshman honors — before surgery was needed to repair a torn muscle in her right shoulder. She had the operation at the end of her first year but wasn’t fully recovered and still battling pain throughout her second season.
    “My sophomore year was a down year, and I knew that,” said the soft-spoken junior guard. “So once my shoulder was OK, I started working really hard because I knew my junior year had to be my year. I was going to have to be even better.”
    For Melson, improvement centered around spending most of her days inside Hanner Fieldhouse toiling relentlessly to improve her game.
    “In the offseason she worked harder than any player on this basketball team,” Eagle coach Rusty Cram said. “From the time the season ended last year until it started this year, she was a gym rat. And she didn’t just work — she worked hard on areas she needed to. Certainly as a coach you’re proud of that, but you’re even more excited for her when you see the production that comes from it during the course of the year. She’s certainly had her share of it.”
    The offseason work was evident immediately as Melson started the season by scoring double figures in four of the first five games and eight of the first 11, including a career-high 24 points against Davidson. With leading scorer Tiffany Brown out for the first six games, Melson’s help was much needed.
    “I knew they we going to look at me so that got me to work harder in the offseason,” Melson said. “I knew I had to make a comeback this year.”
    So far, so good for Melson, who is currently the Eagles’ third-leading scorer with 9.2 points a game (10.3 in SoCon games). Her 26 steals leads the team and 10 blocks ranks second.
    “She’s shake and bake — she can find a little gap, that little bit of seam, and she’s got enough savvy street ball in her that she can get through there and get a shot off against taller quicker people,” said Cram, who’s encouraging Melson to improve her consistency. “When she’s on, she’s as fun to watch as any kid I’ve seen in quite a while. Sometimes your like, ‘My goodness, did she just do that?’
    Cram hopes to Melson will draw a similar reaction from the home crowd today when the Eagles (11-9, 7-2) host SoCon rival UNC Greensboro for a 3 p.m. game. Despite a 14-point loss at league-leading Chattanooga Monday, confidence is soaring for the Eagles, who are in a three-way tie with Western Carolina and Davidson for second place in the league standings.
    “We know where we stand,” said Melson, a psychology major and criminal justice minor who’s leaning towards a career in forensic psychology. “We want that winning feeling back so we’ve got to push hard. We know we are going to compete for the title, and I just can’t wait to get there.”
    Melson’s play has been huge in helping the team regain its status as one of the SoCon’s top programs, and the Eagles have been especially good at Hanner where they’re a perfect 8-0 this year.
    “We’ve got to defend our home court and make the crowd happy,” Melson said. “We play our best at home, and I love playing here. It energizes me, and the whole team feeds off that.”
    Learning to be a tempo setter is one of the adjustments Melson’s had to make this year as she returned to the starting lineup and Cram placed a leadership role on her.
    “Is every game she plays perfect?,” Cram said. “Absolutely not, but for every step backward she’ll take two steps forward. That’s part of the growing process.”
    What about Melson off the court?
    “She’s hilarious,” teammate Shawnda Atwood said. “She’s quiet, but if you push her to the limit, you’ll hear that sweet little voice come up somewhat.”
    
Scouting UNCG
    The Lady Spartans are 5-15 overall and 3-6 in league play after halting a five-game losing streak with back-to-back wins over Appalachian State and Elon last week.
    “Nobody’s just spanking them in the conference,” Cram said. “Their defense is keeping them in ballgames and holding people to low numbers. By no means are they being overlooked by our kids or staff. We’ll have to play well to beat them.”
    The Eagles consider UNCG their biggest rival and started the New Year with a 13-point win in Greensboro. GSU has won six of its last seven.
    “We are going to have to bring everything we brought the first game,” Atwood said. “You can never sleep on teams like that because they’re always looking for an upset. We are just going to play hard and hopefully stay undefeated at home.”
    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.