NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tierra Rogers' ailing heart wasn't strong enough to sustain what had the makings of a glorious basketball career.
Still it was big enough, her California teammates say, to help carry the Golden Bears to the first women's Final Four in program history.
By all accounts, the way Rogers dealt with the premature end of her basketball dreams — only 20 months after her father had been murdered — has transformed her into an inspiring and steadying force in the Cal locker room.
"She's like the heart of our team with everything she's gone through," junior guard Afure Jemerigbe said. "We've seen how she's struggled and still been able to come to practice every single day. That fuels us."
Although Rogers doesn't perform vigorous activity, she has remained on the roster and is expected to graduate this summer with a degree in African American studies.
During open practice on the eve of Sunday's national semifinal against Louisville, the slender, 5-foot-11 Rogers stood on the sideline in blue sweat pants and a blue long-sleeve shirt with the cursive "Cal" logo sewn in gold across the front, leaning against the scorer's table as she watched teammates run drills. The way she bobbed her head to the music the Cal band played, or smiled as she spoke with teammates, or playfully patted Cal's videographer on the arm, left the impression that she'd moved well beyond the bitterness that accompanied her misfortune.
"My dad was my best friend, so when that was taken from me, and then when basketball is taken from me, I'm like, 'OK, what am I going to do with my life?'" Rogers recalled. "For me it was going through the process of anger, resentment, being frustrated all the time. I had to go through the hard battles within myself in order to help others. Now that I'm at a better place with everything, I think it's easier for me to give to other people as far as advice. If they're going through any personal issues or emotionally unstable, it helps me just try to talk to them about how to keep your emotions under control."
Rogers' arrival at Cal four years ago was seen as a recruiting coup for the Bears. A star high school player from San Francisco, she was consistently ranked among the top 30 players nationally by recruiting analysts. Her high school team, Sacred Heart Cathedral, won three state titles and had two 32-0 seasons.
But before she played a game at Cal, she collapsed and stopped breathing near the team's training room.
She learned weeks later that she had a rare condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, and doctors implanted a defibrillator.
In time, she was able to discover the benefits of such a disappointing and life-altering event.
"I'm very fortunate, very blessed. When I fainted, that could have been my last breath," Rogers said. "When you have basketball and your family, your dad, you're oblivious to a lot of things around you because you're so worried about yourself and what you have going on. So when those things were taken away from me, I became aware of who I really was. It helped me grow as a person and mature and figure out who I am without basketball."
In doing so, she has helped lift Cal basketball to never-before-seen heights.
"There's not a player in Cal history who's had as big of an impact on a program and this young woman hasn't played a minute," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "There were times when the sight of a basketball court made her sad and yet she still showed up because that's what you do when you're a teammate. She's a mentor, a friend, a leader and she speaks to what this Cal program is about."
Across the country, Virginia coach Joanne Boyle, who was Cal's coach the day Rogers collapsed, has watched from afar with profound satisfaction as Rogers' story unfolded.
"Through all this turmoil she's been through she has had to figure out a different role for herself than what she planned," Boyle said. "She expected to be one of the great players ever and leading her team to a Final Four on the floor. Her ability to get a team to the Final Four in a completely different way is what's so extraordinary about her."
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Berkeley, Calif., contributed to this report.