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From Gary to Greatness

CRAWFORD | Evans approaches Senior Day as one of Louisville's finest, but looking for more

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Dana Evans

Dana Evans will finish her Louisville career as one of the school's all-time greats, and a top candidate for national player of the year.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Usually, there's more time. When the University of Louisville women's basketball team has Senior Night, generally, it's not goodbye. It's just a ceremony -- and a celebration. Everybody knows the team will be back in a couple of weeks for the early-round NCAA Tournament games.

But in this jacked-up season, Dana Evans will play her last (scheduled) game in the KFC Yum! Center tonight at 7 against Georgia Tech, in front of a few thousand fans after an ice storm. And then, boom. She's on the road out of here. The NCAA Tournament will be played in San Antonio, and she's hoping to put together a grand finale.

Granted, plenty of people around the Atlantic Coast Conference will tell you that she's been around long enough. Conference Sixth Player of the Year as a sophomore. ACC Player of the Year as a junior. More than likely, ACC Player of the Year as a senior, too, and maybe national Player of the Year.

I've written a good many Senior Night appreciation stories. I wrote Angel McCoughtry's, and Shoni Schimmel's. I wrote one for Myisha Hines-Allen, and for Asia Durr.

Evans is in the same neighborhood. McCoughtry gave the program a glimpse of what the future could be. Schimmel and her teammates were the self-described "party crashers." Hines-Allen ushered it to the top of the ACC, and Durr established it as a consistent national presence.

And Evans? She took the program to No. 1. And not just its first No. 1 ranking, but a place of acceptance among the top tier of women's college basketball programs. The Cardinals are no longer party crashers. They're at the party. And Evans has had a huge hand in that.

It didn't necessarily start out that way. She came to Louisville as a McDonald's All-American, but would come off the bench for two seasons. I'd like to tell you that she was OK with that, but she wasn't, at least not at first.

She was willful. "Stubborn," is her word, and coach Jeff Walz's. He was tough on her. She was having a tough time. She had things to prove and was in a hurry to start proving them. It meant a great deal to her to be the first McDonald's All-American girls player out of Gary, Ind. And she was stung by not being named Indiana Miss Basketball.

"Not just for me," she said, "but for all the little girls in Gary. It motivated me."

And at Louisville, she didn't think it was working out.

On the court now, Evans personifies cool composure. The ice in her veins seems as thick as the ice that covers the city the night before her senior game.

"Untrappable, unflappable," ESPN's Debbie Antonelli says about her.

But when I asked her what got her through those early days, she was anything but placid.

"God had a plan for me," Evans said. "My journey here wasn't easy. My path here wasn't easy. A lot of people would've given up and gone somewhere else to be a starter or the star on a team. But my parents, they raised me different. They wouldn't allow me to just quit. So . . . I'm sorry."

Here, the unflappable Dana Evans stopped, and began to cry.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Yeah. So my parents are my biggest blessings, because there were a lot of times when I wanted to give up. I wanted to go somewhere else. I just wanted something else. I didn't think this was the place for me. But I'm so grateful that my parents made me stick it out, and they made me figure it out on my own."

I'd say she figured it out. These players always have news conferences before their Senior Days and people always ask them how they did this and that. But that's not really what it's about.

It's less about how, and more about who. Who they became that allowed them to do the things they did. Who helped them get there. Evans had some growing to do before the nights and early mornings spent in the gym, and the hours spent watching video with assistant coach Sam Purcell. She sought out Dr. Vanessa Shannon, U of L's director of mental performance, and a sport psychologist, who has helped her immensely.

On Wednesday morning, Walz got to his office and found a note left for him. Evans had written it.

"Probably one of the nicest notes that I've gotten in my 14 years from a player," he said. "About going back to freshmen year. We were a pain in each other's butt for a while. We butted heads, but that's what makes her great. Every great one has a will about them that you're not just going to change them overnight. You've got to work it. You've got to take your time, be patient. It's not like we changed Dana. What we tried to do is help her grow, to see the game from a different lens."

Evans is not likely to finish among the top 5 scorers in program history. Part of the reason for that is COVID. She lost a tournament run last season, and this season will wind up being shortened. But another reason is that she willingly sacrificed minutes for two years. She came off the bench.

She could've been a featured scorer from the time she stepped onto campus. But that's not what was needed. It took her some time to wrap her head around that. But she did.

That's what should be remembered about Evans. That's the growth curve. She learned from Arica Carter, who played in front of her, about having a team ego. She learned from Asia Durr, who herself came off the bench for a season because of injury, and who was in the gym all the time.

"It's very rare," Walz said. "And part of that is social media. It is what it is. We are in a time right now where everything has to be done right now. You should be getting this, getting that. I tell all our kids, you have to earn it. There's nothing wrong with learning from someone who might be a little bit better than you. . . . In the long run, Dana could've gone somewhere and started and shot it 25 times a game, but I don't know if she'd be where she is right now, if that was the case."

The result, in her senior season, has been breathtaking. Her late-game heroics have gotten a great deal of attention, and they should. But a great deal of work went into getting there.

A sequence at Virginia Tech brought that home to Walz. Late in a close game, Evans drove and found Hailey Van Lith for a wide-open jump shot. She missed. She drove and found Kianna Smith for an open look. Smith missed. Evans then took over, and made the eventual game-winner. Walz doesn't know if she'd have made those passes a year earlier. He also told her that she probably wouldn't have gotten a decent look if she hadn't set it up with those passes.

Evans has grown into those situations. She dribbled off a screen and hit a game-sealing three against Notre Dame like she was in a drill in practice, never changing facial expression. She has become, among many other things, the greatest free-throw shooter in program history. She's at better than 93 percent for her career. She just missed one in her last game -- breaking a streak of 45 in a row.

Her view of pressure situations?

"It's just what the team needs," she said. "I feel like God has a plan for me. I just try to execute our plans and leave everything else to him."

Walz said, "She has invested in herself, and you can see it throughout the games. You go back to freshmen sophomore and part of her junior year, if she missed a shot that she thought she should have made, she'd wear that for two or three possessions. Now she just moves onto the next play."

The other thing to remember about Evans is her will to win. One of the things that likely kept her in Louisville was the success of the overall program.

"The kid does like to win," Walz said.

She always has, at no matter what she did, according to her father, Damon. She competed in ballet from the age of 4. Her parents were surprised when, in grade school, she went out for the basketball team and made it. She had told them she was going to try out for cheerleading, then just followed a group of kids into the gym and made the basketball team.

She was a natural. A documentary that U of L put together about her features video of a 5th grade Evans, driving to the hoop, drawing contact then staring down the larger girl who fouled her. In her Gary, Ind., youth leagues, she was known for her scoring and her defense. She has become a a role model for girls back in Gary, and she embraces that.

For now, she is hoping to write another memorable chapter at Louisville. Her playing days in the KFC Yum! Center may be drawing to a close. Her work in the program isn't. She passed on a chance to be drafted in the WNBA after last season. She'd like to add one more piece to her Louisville legacy.

"I've done a lot of things here, but we haven't won a national championship," she said. "That's still the goal."

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