Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
EAST FALLS — It was everything Upper Dublin wanted to see from Amy Ngo followed by the last thing any of them wanted to see.
Ngo, the team’s standout junior guard who made her long-awaited season debut on Tuesday, showed no fear or hesitation backing down a Garnet Valley defender as the closing seconds of the first half counted down Sunday.
Ngo not only got the shot off, she made it but the act of doing so knocked the guard — and the twice-surgically repaired right knee that kept her out so long — off balance, sending her toppling to the floor.
A collective holding of breath let out right away as Ngo hopped up and returned to the Cardinals’ bench.
The first scare had come then gone and Amy Ngo could finally get back to playing basketball again.
“It’s amazing, this is still crazy, I still don’t believe it,” Ngo said. “Whenever people ask me, it just doesn’t feel real because it was so long. I’m just really happy to be back.”
Nearly 11 months to the day a devastating knee injury ended her sophomore season, Ngo had the best game of her now three-game long junior campaign by scoring 10 points in Sunday’s 41-37 win over Garnet Valley in the Play-By-Play Maggie Lucas Classic. Upper Dublin is 3-0 with Ngo back, although the 5-foot-4 guard is still on a minutes restriction and understandably getting her game legs back while getting used to the brace that now encases her right knee on the court.
When Ngo went down in the fourth quarter of the Cardinals District 1 6A second round playoff game at Pennsbury last Feb. 23, everyone in the gym that night knew it was bad. By the time all the tests and scans came back, the register of damages was lengthy, involved and a bit frightening.
“I tore my ACL, my MCL, both meniscus and parts of my PCL,” Ngo said. “I did it all, basically.”
Ngo had surgery to repair her knee on April 1, 2022 - no joke - and following six weeks on crutches, was diligent in her physical therapy and rehab but her doctor and therapist noticed she wasn’t progressing as quickly as they’d hoped. At the end of the summer, all parties agreed on a second surgical procedure to go in and clean up scar tissue that had built up following the initial repair.
That second surgery, an arthroscopic procedure which happened on Sept. 14, seemed to do the trick.
“It was a push forward, it didn’t set me back,” Ngo said. “The first couple days, I mean it was a surgery so it was rough, but then it was definitely a lot easier. I think the second or third time I went to PT I was already (able to bend the knee) 10 to 15 degrees more than I was before the second surgery so it was perfect, it did exactly what it needed to."
Upper Dublin junior Amy Ngo helped the Cardinals to a win over Garnet Valley on Sunday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
One of the first things UD coach Morgan Funsten will say about Ngo is just how much she loves basketball. If she could live in Upper Dublin’s gym, she’d probably consider it so it was difficult seeing someone so loved and respected in the program unable to do the one thing she enjoys the most for nearly a year.
What Ngo didn’t do was sulk or slink away. Granted, there were difficult days and frustrations - especially when her recovery was seemingly bogged down - but Ngo made a point to be as involved with both the Cardinals and her Comets AAU team as possible.
“You’re nervous, I think everyone’s nervous having her come back but it’s good to go out and take a few hits, she took a huge charge there down the stretch, almost took another one and what she’s giving us from a leadership standpoint is immeasurable,” Funsten said. “Although she was out, she was in the gym all the time.
“Every open gym. Every practice. Every summer league game. Team camp. She was involved, so even though she wasn’t on the court, she wasn’t away.”
The only thing left was setting up a timeline to come back. Ngo originally thought she’d be out a few more weeks but an opening with her doctor last Monday got her in the office for a check-up and eventually, a clearance to return on a limited basis.
One Cardinal more than any other had been looking forward to that news for months. Megan Ngo, the team’s standout freshman point guard, had never gotten to play with her sister on the same team and while she gave her older sister just the slightest of edges in which of them was more excited, she couldn’t wait.
“I don’t think anyone was more excited than me but Meg was super hype,” Amy said. “Funsten was super hype, I think everyone was.”
Then, in typical sister fashion, Megan really let Amy know about how she felt just after they took the floor together for the first time.
“We’re very competitive so Tuesday, my first game back, I came into the game and turned the ball over - it was a close game too - and she got really mad at me,” Amy said. “I’m out there like, ‘Meg, I’m just happy I can play.’ And she’s yelling at me like ‘come on!’ so I’m just saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’
“She’s done a great job already, same with Coll (Besachio) so I’m just looking to help them.”
Megan did not deny the accusations.
“We have the same work ethic,” Megan Ngo said. “We want to keep getting better, so it’s really nice to be able to push each other and get on each other about some stuff but in the end, I’m just really happy that she’s out there.”
It’s all good now, and Megan even assisted Amy’s first made basket of the day Sunday by looping her sister a cross-court pass that Amy knocked down for a three in the second quarter. After an 11-month ordeal and seeing all the work her sister put in to return, having that moment was special for Megan when she realized it was their first on-court connection as teammates.
“I know more than anyone how hard she works,” Megan said. “It’d be 11 o’clock, I’m ready to go to sleep and she’d be in our gym at home doing PT. For her to not be able to do what she loves while she was working back to get there, it was hard seeing her just having to be on the sideline all the time.
“It’s a lot better now that she’s back.”
Megan Ngo has played above her years already as Upper Dublin’s point guard, main ball handler and many times, go-to scorer. When Garnet Valley started throwing pressure at the Cardinals late and even being well-covered most of the game, it seemed like a relief that No. 12 could look for No. 22 to pass the ball to.
Funsten noted that while anything Amy Ngo can give them now on offense is a plus, it’s her leadership that will help a team with only one other returning regular from last year in senior Alaina Sanders.
“They’ve never played together before, which is amazing,” Funsten said. “It definitely will release some stress and responsibility off of Meg. It’s still a work in progress how all the pieces of this team will fit together, but it sure is good to have her back.
“She is just so happy to be back, she doesn’t care about numbers. The other night, Amy played 11 minutes, still had a major impact on the game despite missing her only two shot attempts but was happy as could be.”
There’s still a process to even get Ngo on the floor. She goes through a pregame stretching routine and band work with athletic trainer Katie Bartosik and follows up with some more work at halftime and of course, there’s the brace. While it’s not always the easiest to play in, Ngo said it has definitely put her mind at ease.
It’s also a little extra security when Jen Zenszer Ngo’s eldest daughter has to do things her way.
“My mom, she was like ‘don’t be stupid,’ and of course I said ‘I'm not going to be stupid, but I’m going to play hard,’" Amy said. "I’m not going to not play the way I know, like last year charges were my thing, I took a ton and I kept saying ‘I’m going to take a charge in the first game.’”
Amy did credit her mom, a member of the Big 5 Hall of Fame from her playing days at La Salle, as the one person who was always able to get her through a bad day.
“Whenever I’d get down or negative, she’d always have something to push me back up, to help me look at the end goal,” Ngo said.
Ngo said she hasn’t felt any discomfort after games aside from some swelling that is to be expected after going from rehab work to full-tilt competitive basketball.
“The way I put my focus into basketball, I was able to do that with PT,” Ngo said. “That definitely helped me get through and I was always thinking ‘you’re going to come back eventually,’ but if I put all my focus into PT and rehab, I could get better and do it quicker.”
She doesn’t have to look far for a reminder. There is a pretty noticeable scar running vertically down her right knee and while it’s covered by a sleeve she wears under her brace on the court, it is a signifier of all that has transpired in the last year.
Scars mean different things to everyone who has one but Amy Ngo is comfortable with hers.
“I mean, I think it looks pretty tough,” she said. “It resembles all that I went through, I think it’s pretty cool.”
“I definitely agree with that,” Megan Ngo said. “She should keep it, for sure.”
The outpouring of support was not lost on Ngo either. From the well-wishes from opposing teams, players and coaches after her initial injury to a heartfelt post from her Comets AAU program extolling her commitment through a lost summer to the wave of congratulatory posts that came in Tuesday, Ngo felt touched to know so many people had her back.
She even found the humor in a post by Abington coach Dan Marsh, welcoming her back and wishing her well, except their upcoming rematch to close out SOL play.
“It really shows it’s bigger than basketball, these teams we play twice a year, they’re so supportive even though it could affect them the next time, it’s still really nice,” Ngo said. “I think (Marsh) said ‘except January 31,’ which, fair enough.”
Ngo is hoping to get a little sharper with each game and noted she definitely has to work to get her speed back while also getting a feel for how to play with her “new” teammates. It’s only going to get better from here and there’s no doubt that the local basketball scene is better with Amy Ngo back as an active participant.
“I’m just happy to be out there and whatever happens, happens,” Ngo said. “Last year, I was really hard on myself mentally if I missed a shot or made a mistake.
“This year, I told Funsten, you’re never going to have to be mad at me if I miss a shot or about my body language or anything because I’m just so happy to be back playing.”
UPPER DUBLIN 41, GARNET VALLEY 37
Amy Ngo’s comeback couldn’t have happened at a much better time for the Cardinals, who are grappling for standing in the District 1 playoff standings.
Sunday’s match-up with a Jaguars team that’s not only in the same neighborhood in the power rankings but similar in terms of style of play and skill, was then a big one. It wasn’t too surprising to see that game go into the fourth quarter as a tight, back-and-forth affair.
Megan Ngo and Nora Brad hit back-to-back threes to put UD ahead at the start of the final frame but it was six straight points by senior Alaina Sanders that turned the tide.
“She scored on an out-of-bounds play, a layup on one of our plays and a breakaway layup,” Funsten said. “She’s a good defender, a four-year member of the program who has worked really hard, has a good attitude and has really improved.
“The girls are super-excited about Amy being back but I’m sure in our locker room right now they’re just as excited about the way Alaina finished that game.”
Sanders, who was a rock for UD’s girls’ soccer team as the starting holding midfielder the last two seasons, put her team ahead 36-30 on a runout with 3:54 left that gave the Cardinals just enough room to slip past the Jaguars.
UPPER DUBLIN 7 | 9 | 8 | 17 || 41
GARNET VALLEY 9 | 5 | 12 | 13 || 37
UD: Megan Ngo 12, Amy Ngo 10, Colleen Besachio 10, Alaina Sanders 6, Nora Brady 3
GV: Haylie Adamski 15, Kylie Mulholland 11, Sarah Sigston 4, Jordan Daubenberger 3, Savannah Saunders 2, Mia Zebley 2