Story by Dan McDonald

La'Ryan Gary walked across the Cajundome stage just over two months ago, receiving his bachelor's degree from Louisiana at the mid-point of his final collegiate basketball season.

Graduation is an accomplishment in itself for a student-athlete in a high-profile sport, and there's no question that the Carencro native worked hard to attain that goal. But in Gary's case, walking normally might have been an even bigger accomplishment.

After all, it had been almost two years since Gary went down with what Ragin' Cajun basketball trainer B. J. Duplantis called "the worst on-court injury I've ever seen." And Duplantis isn't the only one that remembers that night.

"Man, I had nightmares," Gary said. "I'd jump up in the middle of the night, thinking I'd hurt my knee all over again. I did that for a long time. But then I'd think God was protecting me ... He wasn't going to let anything like that happen again."

"That" was a horrific injury that came late in the first half of a Sun Belt Conference Tournament first-round game against Florida International at the Cajundome. Gary, a Cajun fan favorite after playing his prep career at hometown St. Thomas More and Carencro Highs, was on his way to the basket on a back-door cut when he suddenly crumpled to the floor.

"It happened right when I jumped off of it," he said, "but I didn't feel it until I looked at it. That's when everything clicked."

His left knee was a disaster - a torn patella tendon and a dislocated kneecap that grotesquely pushed the skin out, along with a broken tibia and torn knee ligaments. He was carted off the floor, and a deflated Cajun team lost 71-69.

"That's the kind of injury that most guys don't come back from," said first-year UL coach Bob Marlin, who hasn't watched video of the injury and doesn't want to.

Fast forward 20 months, and Gary was back in uniform, playing 16 minutes in the season opener against New Mexico State. Less than two weeks later, he had team highs of 19 points, six rebounds and four steals against Cleveland State.

"We could see in our spring workouts that he was very skilled and could be a big part of our club," Marlin said. "But we weren't sure about his knee ... we thought if he could give us 15 or 20 minutes per game, it would be a huge plus for us."

As of mid-February, Gary was averaging about 16 minutes per game - but was also averaging double-figure scoring in Sun Belt play, something that wasn't expected. And his leadership of a reforming team in its first year under a new coaching staff, and his penchant for coming up with a big play, couldn't be defined by numbers.

An example of that came in an early February game against North Texas. UNT's Dominique Johnson appeared to have a run-out layup late in the game, but Gary sprinted from midcourt and swatted Johnson's shot from behind off the backboard. UL came up with the loose ball and scored on the possession, a momentum-changing series that led to a 93-88 win.

"When La'Ryan ran full court and blocked that shot, there was no way we were going to let him down," said teammate and fellow senior Travis Bureau. "There was no way we couldn't defend after seeing him do that."

Teammates were used to seeing him do athletic things in his first two UL seasons. Those acrobatic efforts appeared to be a thing of the past, until Gary went to work.

"His mom kept telling me I had to get him back out there," Duplantis said. "She said basketball was what motivated him, and he needed that. I told her that we had a plan."

Gary went through full rehabilitation under Duplantis' watchful eye, but wasn't nearly well enough to play by the time the 2009-10 season came around. During that year, he had to have a follow-up scope procedure to clean up some lingering problems, and went through a lot of down moments.

Then-coach Robert Lee made Gary a student coach last season, working with his teammates while going through the rehab process. It kept him involved with the game, and when he was granted an injury redshirt year he began planning for one more playing season.

But even that didn't come easy. The first week of workouts he hurt his knee again in the weight room, and he struggled in a preseason scrimmage at Northwestern State.

"I had two air-balls and four turnovers there," Gary said. "I had to get to the point that I wasn't focusing on my knee and focus on playing."

"In the spring and summer, he pushed himself too hard," Marlin said. "He didn't want to miss because he felt he was cheating the team. But he finally accepted the fact that he wasn't going to practice every day and that it would be better for him and us if he didn't practice every day."

Slowly his confidence started returning, and it wasn't a coincidence that in the Cajuns' February winning streak he had four straight double-figure scoring games and hit 25-of-41 shots over a five-game stretch. One of those games came in that North Texas win, even though during that game he "tweaked" his knee again - something that's become a regular occurrence. This time, though, the pain was such that he had tears rolling down his cheek.

"I told him he was out," Duplantis said, "and he just said no. Before I could tell Coach that he was ready to go, he was yelling 'La'Ryan...' and waving him in."

Minutes later, he came up with his big defensive block.

"He's got tremendous heart,"Marlin said, "and he's always leading. He's been through a lot, and our guys know that and they've got a huge amount of respect for him. I think one of his goals is just to get to play in Hot Springs, because the last two years he didn't get to do that."

He's already reached a lot of goals, but one remains"

"I guess just playing this year is sort of a win," Gary said, "but I'm not satisfied. I want to get this team to the NCAA Tournament. Once we get there, it'll be a win."

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