- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

WACO, TEXAS (AP) - Melissa Jones is doing something Brittney Griner knows she can’t do.

Griner, Baylor’s 6-foot-8 sophomore standout, closed her right eye and tried to shoot a jumper during a recent practice. Then she did the same thing from the free throw line.

“I kept like sneaking it open, trying to get a peek real quick,” Griner said. “It’s really hard.”

Jones, the gritty senior known as “MJ” and long admired for her hard-nosed play, has been without vision in her right eye since hitting her head on the floor going for a loose ball 2 1/2 weeks ago at Oklahoma.

Yet there she is, protective dark glasses in place, still diving to the floor and playing extensive minutes for the top-seeded Lady Bears.

“I’m not the least bit surprised that she is doing this with effort and with toughness,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “I’m just amazed at the production on that floor with one eye.”

While her vision is still very blurry, Jones this week started getting some sight back in the eye. Doctors have said she will eventually recover fully as swelling around her optic nerve subsides, and a checkup Tuesday indicated that is still the case.

The Lady Bears (31-2), a Final Four team last season, play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at home. The Big 12 regular season and tournament champions play Prairie View (21-11) on Sunday night.

Like Mulkey, opposing coaches have long touted Jones, the senior captain on a team with Griner among seven sophomores and one of the two freshmen being the starting point guard.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has declared himself “president of the Melissa Jones fan club,” saying every coach would like to have a player like Jones.

After Griner scored 29 points in a win over Michigan State earlier this season, Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said “Melissa Jones is why they’re going to win a championship. … She’s the glue to that team.”

A well-earned reputation for Jones, the 5-foot-11 guard who plays with an all-out tenacity that surely was formed somewhat by growing up with three older brothers.

“I might not be the most athletic on the team, but I can assure you that I’m going to work the hardest and try my hardest to get that loose ball or give our team an extra possession,” Jones said. “I just want to contribute, and I’m going to do the best that I can to make that happen.”

That is all Jones was doing when she went after a loose ball in a key 82-81 win Feb. 27. Oklahoma’s Whitney Hand also went for the ball and landed on Jones, whose head hit hard on the floor.

Jones stayed in the game, but over the next couple of possessions had a throbbing headache while the vision in her right eye started fading. She thought maybe her eye was swollen shut, but realized it was wide open and that she still couldn’t see out of it.

“It was that moment right there, where I remember just crying, something was seriously wrong with me,” she said.

One of the first things she heard was that doctors weren’t sure she would ever get her eyesight back, though further evaluations eased those fears. It was also determined there was no concussion and she was cleared to return after missing only one game.

Jones was back for the regular season finale at Colorado, her home state, and the entire Big 12 tournament.

Hand, who just returned in January after missing 45 games because of a knee injury, tweeted seeking prayers for Jones.

“It’s just such a freak deal, and it’s scary. It’s a scary thing, and it really touched me,” Hand said. “She was always encouraging through my injuries and I felt like I have been through hers. We’ve kind of had that camaraderie, I guess you would say, kind of a connection, an unsaid respect.”

While Jones averages only 8.3 points a game, she leads the Big 12 with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is among the league leaders in field goal percentage (51 percent), steals (2.0), rebounds (7.0) and assists (3.8).

“You’re so focused on Griner and Odyssey (Sims, the Baylor point guard), and then you’re helping and you’re helping and (Jones) gets you,” Hand said. “It’s hard to stop it because she gives that kind of intangible toughness and leadership.”

In four games since coming back, Jones has 21 rebounds, 19 assists and seven steals. She had eight points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes when Baylor won its opening game in the Big 12 tournament against Kansas.

“I can’t be at my full potential, but I’m still out there just trying to do the best I can to help our team win,” Jones said. “After that first game back, I realized this is more mental than it is physical.”

The limited vision does make it difficult for Jones to keep track of both opposing players and the ball on defense. On offense, it may be hard to see a teammate for a pass when driving toward the basket.

So Jones tries to keep everything “way in front” of her on both ends of the court.

“She’s showing us how tough she is,” Sims said. “She’s just showing that nothing is going to get in the way of her last year, and she doesn’t want to let the team down. … It’s something truly special.”