SEATTLE -- When the Seattle Storm open defense of their WNBA title on Thursday night, center Ashley Robinson will be playing for more than just herself, her teammates and the team's vociferous fans.
She'll also be playing for Pat Summit, the heralded women's basketball coach at national power Tennessee who helped make it possible for Robinson to have a life as a professional player -- and who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.
Summit won't be inside KeyArena -- she's busy getting Tennessee ready for the upcoming season. But she definitely will be in Robinson's mind and heart as the Storm take the court against the Phoenix Mercury in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
"You always want to play for Pat," Robinson said of Summit, who made her diagnosis public in late August. "Every time you step on the court, you're always playing for Tennessee. So whether you're thinking about it or not, you're always playing for her."
A 2004 Tennessee graduate, Robinson has done plenty to make her mentor proud this season. With reigning league MVP Lauren Jackson out for hip surgery from late June through mid-August, the 6-foot-4 Robinson filled in as a starter for a 12-game stretch from July 19 through Aug. 16.
While some might have thought the Storm would falter during yet another injury-related absence for Jackson, Robinson helped them go 6-6 during those 12 games by averaging 5 points, 5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. That included her first career double-double -- 14 points and 10 rebounds in a 78-69 loss at Chicago in her first start of those 12 games.
"I'm no Lauren, so I just do what I do," Robinson said. "I'm tall and I'm athletic, so I rebound, run the floor, play good 'D' and try to finish my easy shots. It was simple, just go do my job."
Added Storm coach Brian Agler, "She has upped her game. We've counted on her, and her teammates have great confidence in her. And now that we have Lauren and Ashley, we have good size at the rim."
Robinson got one more start in an 81-70 homecourt victory against Chicago in the regular-season finale last Sunday, as Agler chose to give Jackson the night off.
But even before tip-off that night, Seattle had clinched second place in the West and homecourt advantage for the first playoff round -- thanks in part to those midseason games when Robinson not only ably filled in for Jackson, but made herself a prime candidate for this year's Most Improved Player award.
"She did things we see her do at practice every day, but I don't think fans would have seen," Jackson said, "the way she's so athletic and can finish and play defense, and the way she impacts the game."
For Robinson, awards are fine things. So are starting spots, playoff berths, and championships.
But as she was reminded with Summit's startling announcement last month, those things aren't everything.
"We definitely want to play hard," Robinson said, "because she always would play hard. And she wouldn't expect anything less."