Nothings normal after that: Abbey Hsu endured the unthinkable and changed the trajectory of Columbia basketball
Paige Bueckers was leading UConn to the Final Four as the first freshman to become national player of the year. Haley Jones was en route to being named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, leading Stanford to its first title in 19 years.
And Abbey Hsu who as a freshman the previous season led Columbia to just its second winning season in 33 years was serving miso soup and spicy salmon rolls at Bluefin Sushi in Parkland, Fla. The star guard did it all deliveries, busing tables, hosting at the restaurant in her hometown while taking a gap year from school.
I just needed the year off, Hsu said. It was the right decision for me.
There was too much to process. Too often, there was something to process.
Hsu faced uncertainty as a high school junior who tore her ACL before committing to a college. About two weeks later, she evacuated Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the deadliest high school mass shooting in the countrys history.
COVID-19 arrived during Hsus freshman year at Columbia, abruptly ending the programs breakthrough season. About two weeks later, her father, Alex, became the first South Florida medical professional to die from the new disease.
Hsu, the youngest of seven children, returned home and remained there for nearly a year and a half. She grieved with her family. She saved up money from tips. She slept in her car while taking a cross-country road trip from Florida to Washington with a friend.
5Abbey Hsu shot 41.1 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, leading Columbia to just its second winning season in 33 years. Courtesy of Columbia University AthleticsIt was so much fun, Hsu said. I never wouldve done that in-season because you never want to take days off. Since Im 8 years old, my whole life has been basketball, basketball, basketball, literally every single day. It was time for me to take in everything that happened to me and explore some interests outside of it.
I think it was a good mental and physical break from basketball.
There is more to process.
Following her return, Columbia which averaged 8.3 wins per season in the 35 years the program existed before Hsus arrival won 53 games in the next two seasons. Last season was the best in program history, featuring 28 wins, its first Ivy League title and a run to the WNIT championship game. Hsu (pronounced shoe) led the conference in scoring and ranked second in the nation in 3-pointers made per game.
Sold-out crowds now frequent Levien Gymnasium, filled with fans holding up shoes to cheer the senior who recently became the Ivy Leagues all-time 3-point leader, who is on pace to become the Lions all-time scoring leader, who was the only player outside of a power conference to be selected for last summers USA AmeriCup team, who could become the sixth Ivy League player ever taken in the WNBA Draft.
Wearing Columbia womens basketball gear and the logo on you means a lot on this campus now, Hsu said. Its pretty cool to see how thats transformed since my freshman year. Nobody cared about basketball games or knew what was going on. Now you hear, Hey, Im coming to this game, and they know the exact date.
5Hsu and fellow Ivy League First Team honoree Kaitlyn Davis helped coach Meg Griffith guide Columbia to its best season in the history of the program in 2022-23. Courtesy of Columbia University AthleticsIm not gonna sit here and be so humble, and be like, Its whatever. It is cool to know theres little girls looking up to you. It is cool to know we have that impact on this community.
It became possible when Meg Griffith first watched a high school sophomore pull up from deep.
It was just, Who is that kid? the Columbia coach recalled. She was a confident and very intense player. The look she had, thats when I fell in love with the kid.
Hsu began playing against her brother on her driveway hoop, growing into a young woman who would shoot until her hand literally bled.
My cousin played basketball and made the newspaper in her town, and I remember seeing that and thinking that was the coolest thing ever, Hsu said. I thought she was the biggest star ever, and I was like, Mom, I want to do that. She signed me up for a league and I never looked back.
“Weve been with her through some of the hardest moments in her life. … I always say to her, Im so proud of you. You consistently show up and youre still the same person every day. Its really remarkable.”
Columbia coach Meg Griffith on star senior Abbey HsuWhen I started getting recognized and I started getting recruiting letters, it was addicting.
She was a 5-foot-11 junior who could grab the rim, but her choices narrowed after she tore the ACL in her right knee. Her first visit to Columbia came during her recovery.
I like to think of everything as a blessing in disguise, Hsu said. I think it helped me figure out what school I wanted to go to. When I told coaches I tore my ACL, you could see who was really, We got your back, and who was, Lets see how this goes.
5Hsu grew up playing against her brother in her family’s driveway before growing into a 5-foot-11 pro prospect. Courtesy of Abbey HsuThen came Valentines Day 2018.
Hsu was in class. An alarm sounded. She believed it was a fire drill. Soon, she would learn of the mass shooting, which claimed 17 lives (14 students) and injured 17 more, including teammate Maddy Wilford, who was shot four times.
Nothings normal after that, Hsu said. The kids you grew up going to school with were all affected by it. In a way, it brought us all closer because we shared that traumatic experience that happened. It does make you realize life is a valuable thing.
After transferring to nearby St. Thomas Aquinas for her senior year, Hsu came to Columbia, sold on the opportunity to make an instant impact. She led the team in scoring as a freshman, while helping the Lions who had endured nine straight losig seasons reach their first Ivy League Tournament in four tries.
The pandemic prevented those games from being played. It took away everything.
Hsu credits her father for her work ethic. He was raised in Hong Kong before moving to the United States, and paid for medical school by taking odd jobs including working in an auto shop and a Chinese restaurant before opening his practice, as an internist, in Florida in 1988.
Shortly after the cancellation of the 2020 season, Alex was taken to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. As his condition rapidly worsened, he sent a final group text to his family, writing that he wanted to live to see his grandchildren, vowing to fight the illness. He died on March 26, before the results of his COVID test came back positive.
5Despite dealing with a multitude of tragedies at home, Hsu impressed her Columbia coach with her ability to “consistently show up and … still be the same person every day.” Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesWeve been with her through some of the hardest moments in her life, Griffith said. So much tragedy. Shes gone through some major life-changing events. Shes the youngest of seven, and shes always been the glue and the rock of her family. … I always say to her, Im so proud of you. You consistently show up and youre still the same person every day. Its really remarkable. Thats what makes her so special.
The Ivy League canceled all sports for the 2020-21 school year. It only made it easier for Hsu to take a year off from school, to mourn and reflect, to be with family and friends.
“The fact that were able to play basketball, as simple as that, were able to wake up, it makes you play for more than just yourself,” Hsu said. “You have other people that have been affected in your lives that werent so lucky. Its definitely a privilege.
In her first game back with Columbia in 20 months, on Nov. 9, 2021, Hsu scored 22 points, beginning a season that ended with a school-record 25 wins and the Ivy Leagues first WNIT quarterfinal appearance. Last season, after Hsu carried the Lions to the best season in school history, they were snubbed on Selection Sunday after fallng in the Ivy League tournament semifinals It was heartbreaking, like getting broken up with by the love of your life, Hsu said and went on to reach the WNIT title game, falling at Kansas.
5Now a senior, Hsu hopes to get the Lions to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the program women’s basketball began in 1984-85. Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesHer presence, when she walks in a room, you know shes there, Griffith said. Four years ago, she was a little bit more unsure and insecure, not as confident. Everybody knows who she is now. I think shes owning that.
Shes a very even-keeled kid, but she knows who she is at Columbia. She wears it well and she wears it with a lot of humility, but she also wears it, like, Yeah, thats me.
Her last dance is underway. She expects it to end during the programs first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Lions (7-4) have won five straight games in their challenging non-conference schedule, with a 3-0 mark against Big East teams, which most recently featured Hsus last-minute game-winning 3-point play against Villanova. Hsu, a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, is averaging a career-best 21.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. The Ivy League slate opens Jan. 6 in Morningside Heights against Penn.
ABBEYHSUAND 1 pic.twitter.com/gcZPv7ySEV
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) December 3, 2023Shes not just changed the program from a statistical, win-loss standpoint, Griffith said. Shes completely changed it culturally.
In a few months, Hsu will graduate. Its a lot to process. Theres still so much left to do.
This is her program, Griffith said. I always say that to her. We go as you go.
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