Purdue pursues tourney win for Mingo
Boilermakers' forward battles through meningitis scare
INDIANAPOLIS -- Four months ago, Drey Mingo lay unconscious on her apartment floor with an illness that gave her a 50 percent chance of survival.
On Sunday, the Purdue forward will lead her team into the NCAA tournament.
“It’s an awe-inspiring story,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. “People said she’d never play again. She said ‘I’m coming back.”’
Mingo will start when the Boilermakers (20-11) play Kansas State (21-10) in a First-Round game Sunday in Storrs, Conn. It’s a stunning turn of events for Mingo, who was admitted to the hospital on Nov. 23 with bacterial meningitis.
Her life, then her career and then her hearing were at risk.
“Basketball was the last thing I was thinking about,” she said. “Once all those issues were settled, it was about getting back in shape and getting back in the swing of things.”
She’s playing like nothing happened. She averages 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field.
“It’s an act of God,” her roommate, Purdue guard Antionette Howard said. “For her now to be back at her full force and having such an impact on the game, it’s amazing, like a miracle.”
The team was preparing for a tournament in Cancun, Mexico, when Mingo fell ill. The team had taken a bus to Indianapolis to board an airplane, but scuttled the plan after learning just how serious things were.
“Once we got the call in the middle of the night, it’s not good, none of us wanted to go,” said guard Brittany Rayburn, the team’s leading scorer. “It was a pretty easy decision to go back. All of us were so concerned, and I don’t think any of us would have wanted to leave her in that circumstance.”
Mingo remained in the hospital for five days.
“The kids were pretty much on edge,” Versyp said. “Hopeful, but they knew it was pretty serious. Fear of the unknown was the most heart-wrenching thing they could go through.”
Mingo, a junior from Atlanta, averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in the first four games of the season before heading to the hospital. Even though it was her first year with the program, she already had been named a captain.
“She was playing the best,” Versyp said. “She was the mental leader, the emotional leader. She’s just a really special young lady.”
After canceling their trip to Mexico, the Boilermakers returned to the court on Dec. 2 to play Maryland, the school Mingo had transferred from. She sat on the sideline for a half, and the Boilermakers led by double digits before dropping a 56-55 decision to the No. 22 Terrapins.
“They totally played for Drey, and they were totally devastated to not be able to win that for her,” Versyp said.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese said her heart went out to Mingo.
“I think in perspective, though, everyone in our locker room would give this game up if there was something we could do to help Drey Mingo and help her through the battle that she has ahead of her,” Frese said that night.
Just 16 days later, Mingo returned to the court. She played 2 minutes against Auburn and had two points and a rebound.
“When I did get on the court, I got a standing ovation in Conseco Fieldhouse, which will probably be the best moment I have in my career,” she said. “Absolutely blessed to be around all those people who helped me celebrate my life there.”
From there, Versyp carefully monitored Mingo’s minutes. She said she treated the situation like a concussion. As Mingo’s conditioning improved and she began regaining the weight she lost, she wanted Versyp to see her as a normal player again.
“When Drey finally said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to be treated any differently, start yelling,’ I told her after Christmas, I’m going to start yelling at her, start getting after her,” she said. “After that, things started getting back to normal.”
Mingo said she expected to return.
“I have always had an amazing group of people behind me supporting me throughout the illness, never thought that I wouldn’t be back,” she said. “It was just a matter of time when I would be back. I never doubted.”
She didn’t feel fully recovered until February, but her team has noticed the difference now that she’s back. She is 6-foot-2 with post skills, a steady jumper and the ball-handling ability of a guard.
“Drey adds so much to our team, it’s ridiculous,” Howard said.
The only permanent change for her is that she lost much of her hearing and will wear a hearing aid for the rest of her life. She can’t wear the device on the court, so her teammates often use hand signals to communicate with her.
“Everyone did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable 100 percent of the time,” she said.
Versyp said the she has learned from the ordeal.
“It puts life in perspective,” she said. “Everybody thinks it’s just about winning championships. This is about winning the game of life. Everybody worries about the small things, but it helps you understand the small things are a really small part of things when it comes to something like this.”
Versyp said this season has been unforgettable, and the trip to the NCAA tournament, considering the circumstances, makes it extra special.
“This will be one of the most memorable times,” she said. “When you look back to a group or a season, when you say ‘when did you do your best coaching job,’ or ‘what is the one that stuck out,’ this will always be the one that will never be forgotten.”