BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) As Maryland's players prepared for their Sweet 16 game with Oregon they were thinking of a 7-year-old girl they consider a teammate.
Ashlyn Barrett suffers from muscular dystrophy and other serious ailments and could not make it to Connecticut from Annapolis, Maryland, for Saturday's game with Oregon. But the team sent her a message in the pregame warmups by wearing shirts that read ''Ashlyn's Army.''
They received permission from the NCAA for the gesture.
''This whole organization is just like a big family and we look at Ashlyn like she's our little sister because she is our little sister,'' guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. ''She sat and signed our national letter of intent just like all of us did, so she's just as important to the team as we are.
''I don't think she realizes how much she means to our team, just coming in smiling every day, when we know she's facing challenges every single day. And that means the world to us because if she can do that, we can do what we do and push through anything.''
Ashlyn ''signed'' with the team two years ago as part of a program called Project Impact, which links seriously ill children to athletic programs.
Her mother said the family expected there would be some autographs, maybe a few photos.
Instead, she said the experience has been life changing. Ashlyn goes to practices and games. She has received numerous visits from team members. They even gave her a piece of the net from last year's Big Ten championship.
''Before, it was pretty boring and depressing in our life,'' Jen Barrett said. ''She could never be a part of a team or have the opportunity, like her sister, to have her father coach her. Ashlyn now has a team. They embrace her as a teammate and they've become family.''
Ashlyn can be having a painful day and everything changes when she connects with her teammates, her mom said. She was having such a day before the Terps' second-round game with West Virginia. But she refused to stay home and instead put on a shirt that read ''Losing Is Not An Option'' and traveled to College Park for the 83-56 win.
The team stayed in touch with Ashlyn this weekend through texts and video chats. They were chatting with her Thursday as the Barrett family attended a fundraiser to help pay their medical bills and watched as the family was surprised with an all-expense paid trip to Disney World.
But Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose young son Tyler battled pediatric cancer, says this has not been a one-way relationship. Ashlyn has taught them valuable life lessons about perseverance.
''The initial (idea) was obviously wanting her to be a part of our team and being able to give her an experience back that I know having gone through, having my own son, when he was sick, and the hospital visits and kind of what that relief meant,'' she said. ''For our team, they're inspired every day by her. They know how sick of a little girl she is and everything that she's been through.''
Ashlyn would love to travel with the team, but the family can't afford it because of what her mother said are astronomical medical bills. Her husband, Justin, is an exterminator and is out of work during the winter. Jen had to leave her job at the U.S. Naval Academy to care for her daughter.
Right now, every cent they take in is going toward bills and an effort to send Ashlyn to Boston to see new doctors and get experimental treatments. The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money.
But on Saturday, Ashlyn was cheering her team through its 77-63 loss to Oregon. Her mom said she takes the losses as hard as the players.
''She does not like to lose,'' she said. ''She's very proud of her teammates.''