Kristen Sharkey watched a lot of basketball last winter.

Much more than she would have preferred.

A major knee injury forced Sharkey, who plays for the University at Buffalo, to sit out the 2011-12 season and kept her instead viewing games from the bench.

Sharkey, a 2010 Southern Regional High School graduate, tore her anterior cruciate ligament and medial meniscus in her left knee on Halloween 2011 and had surgery last Dec. 12. She had never missed considerable playing time before the injury.

Being sidelined for such a long time was tough for Sharkey. It also gave the 2009-10 Press Girls Basketball Player of the Year something to work toward.

"I really got a feel for what it's like to not have what you've always had and loved to do," Sharkey said in a phone interview from Buffalo last week. "It just pushes you and drives you in every aspect. Basketball and school is it for me."

Sharkey, now a redshirt sophomore, worked tirelessly to get back in shape for the 2012-13 season and is back in the lineup for the Bulls (2-9). The 6-foot-1 forward averages 5.1 rebounds and 7.0 points in 20.6 minutes.

A major rehab

It wasn't an easy task. Sharkey, who grew up in the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township, went through six months of grueling physical therapy that included multiple sessions totaling three hours daily.

At first, she simply worked with weights and getting her leg used to the motions of the sport. Sharkey said she still rehabs a little bit each day.

"She's working her tail off to get where she needs to be," Buffalo coach Felisha Legrette-Jack said.

Sharkey, who is fourth in scoring and rebounding for the Bulls, has the potential to grow tremendously in both aspects. At Southern, she became the school's all-time leading rebounder (984 rebounds) and second all-time leading scorer (1,740 points). She led the Rams to two consecutive appearances in the South Jersey Group IV finals.

Legrette-Jack says Sharkey could also become a leader for a Buffalo team that has no seniors. As Sharkey's confidence on the court grows with playing time, Legrette-Jack would also like to see her get louder.

"She has a knack to score," Legrette-Jack said. "I'd love to see her have more of a voice because she's got an IQ for the game."

Sharkey says her knee feels stronger and better every day. She said she's beginning to feel normal again.

Sharkey was injured during a practice last Oct. 31. It was nothing spectacular: She simply went to catch a pass and her knee buckled. It'd be understandable for her to play with some reserve.

"At first, over the summer, when we started to play pick-up games, I was a little timid," she said. "I've gotten over that. I'm just back to playing my game."

Sharkey returned to a Bulls team in a transition season. Legrette-Jack took over the squad following six seasons at Indiana University.

The Bulls believe

The Bulls have struggled but headed into a week-long winter break on a high note. Buffalo defeated Niagara University 65-51 on Friday. The Bulls will host Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. this Saturday.

Sharkey said Legrette-Jack has changed the mindset of everyone on Buffalo's team. The Bulls believe they can become a winning program.

Legrette-Jack says she feels similarly about her young team.

"The foundation is being laid and the system placed. The kids are buying into it and that's all you can ask for," Legrette-Jack said.

As Buffalo works through its growing pains, Sharkey will do the same. Her basketball career has been given a second chance, and she doesn't want to waste the opportunity.

"I think you don't really appreciate what you have until you lose it," Sharkey said. "I'm so blessed to be able to play Division I basketball at Buffalo."

Contact Brittany Grugan: