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Louisville’s Dana Evans, down to her final NCAA tournament games, still has more to prove

DAMON EVANS WAS working the overnight shift at the NLMK Steel Mill near Gary, Indiana, in the winter of 2019 when his daughter called to vent. The fact that Dana Evans was calling after 1 a.m. wasn’t extraordinary; she normally talks to her father after her basketball games. But this time, the budding star for the Louisville women’s basketball team sounded different. “I don’t know, Daddy,” she told him. “This is starting to get to me.” Evans had just landed from a road game at Florida State, a game in which she was minimally involved, and, after stewing in the back of the plane for most of the flight, she had fired off a text to her coach, Jeff Walz.

“Maybe I picked the wrong school,” it said.

Walz’s reply was not what Evans expected.

“Maybe you did,” he texted back.

Damon Evans had watched the Louisville-Florida State game that night before he headed to his midnight shift, unaware that the repercussions of the game, which actually ended with a Cardinals victory, would lead to such a long night. His daughter, a sophomore at the time, had played 18 minutes, which wasn’t a huge surprise because the Cardinals were loaded with talent.

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Evans represented the future of Louisville women’s basketball, but the future couldn’t wait. Walz could not afford to lose her. She was a McDonald’s All American with speed and massive scoring potential. But like Evans, Walz was stubborn. He insists that he wasn’t worried on that tense night two years ago, nor did he frantically call Evans to make sure she wasn’t Googling, “transfer portal.”

Assistant coach Sam Purcell did all the scrambling for them. Purcell texted Damon at the steel mill and talked to him at 3:30 a.m. At the end of the conversation, Damon told Purcell, “I got this.”

The next call was between Damon and his daughter. It was about 4 in the morning. He told her life was hard. It has always been that way for Evans growing up in Gary, Indiana. He reminded her that she knew what she was getting into when she signed on at Louisville.

A few hours after she got off the phone with her dad, a sleep-deprived Evans walked into Walz’s office and apologized. Two years later, she’s a first-team All-American and the leader of a Louisville team that will play Oregon in the Sweet 16 on Sunday.

Walz said it’s a good example of a player “trusting the process,” in a time when more than 1,500 college athletes are in the transfer portal. But it’s more than that. The Dana Evans story is about a player trusting herself. Trusting that nothing — not her 5-foot-6 frame, not her childhood in a reeling town, not a benching and not even a shooting slump during the most crucial time of her college career — could slow her down. It is that trust that Louisville will count on as the Cardinals aim for their first national title in program history.

“She’s always had a chip on her shoulder,” Damon Evans said. “That’s just how she’s built, and she’s always been that way. She’s the type of kid, and she probably won’t admit this, but she needs a reason to be mad.”

Dana Evans will be making her third appearance in the Sweet 16 when the Cardinals take on Oregon on Sunday. Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

THE FIRST SLIGHT came on Aug. 1, 1998. Dana Evans came in at 6 pounds and 9 ounces, a tiny baby who would never grow into a basketball player’s prototype. Her mom, Shwanda, got her into ballet when she was about 5. It was her first love. When Evans was in fourth grade, she tried out for the basketball team, despite never having picked up a basketball before. She had quietly studied the game for years, because it was always on in the house, and surprised her dad when she made the roster.

Evans was faster than everyone else, mentally and physically. The ballet crunches and sit-ups gave her a strong core. Old videos of her grade-school playing days show her zooming around taller players. “The first thing I was good at was defense,” she said. “I think it was because I was just so low to the ground and I didn’t like anybody to score on me.”

She didn’t mind being just a defensive player — until she scored her first basket. But by the eighth grade, she knew she’d have to give something up, and it wasn’t going to be basketball. It was hard for her to quit ballet because she knew how much her mom loved it. But Shwanda understood. She was always the one who tried to fill her daughter with positive thoughts. Her dad was the one who critiqued her and told her the things she didn’t want to hear.

Even as a kid, Dana Evans was perhaps destined for the Big Dance. Beachfront Dance School

They worked hard to give Evans a good life. They made sure there was enough money for the 10-hour road trips to AAU games in Virginia, or wherever else basketball took her. But the good life wasn’t always easy. Gary is a Rust Belt town located about a half hour southeast of downtown Chicago. Decades ago, it was a booming steel city, but then overseas competition and technology led to layoffs. Now it is known for its unemployment, blighted buildings and high crime rates.

Evans said she has “lost friends to gun violence.” A few years ago, her cousin, Pamela Hunter, was shot and killed in her home. Hunter, whom they called “P.J.,” was a 28-year-old mother of five.

One of Gary’s most hopeful images was a mural of The Jackson 5, who were founded in Gary, on a four-story downtown building. That building was demolished in November because it was deemed unsafe.

But Evans has always carried a deep pride for Gary. It’s where she forged her toughness. She’d see her parents work hard, her dad pulling 12-hour shifts, and the people of Gary struggling for a better life, and it inspired her. She liked being the underdog, fighting her way through players bigger than her, proving she belonged.

She led West Side High School to three Class 4A sectional titles.

She averaged 35.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 4.8 steals during her senior year, and her 2,832 career points ranked fifth in Indiana prep girls history. But she did not win Indiana’s Miss Basketball. And it still bothers her today.

Dana Evans, left, was a McDonald’s All American as a senior at Gary’s West Side. As a senior at Louisville, she was named a first-team All-American. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Evans did have her moment when she made the McDonald’s All-American team. The game was played at the United Center in Chicago, a short drive from her home. During a media event that week, her interview turned into a motivational speech.

“No girl has ever made the McDonald’s All-American team from Gary, Indiana,” she said. “Well, guess what? I’m the first.

“I’m a living testimony that you can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it. Whether it deals with playing sports, playing an instrument, singing or anything. You can be anything you want. But you have to believe in yourself, pray and work for it.”

THE THING THAT stood out to Louisville’s coaches when they watched Evans play AAU ball was speed. It’s her superpower, Sam Purcell said. When she zooms past someone, they laugh, look at each other and say, “Bye bye.”

They offered her a chance to join a great team and win the school’s first national championship in women’s basketball. The Cardinals already had Asia Durr on the roster, who’d wind up being the No. 2 pick in the 2019 WNBA draft. Jazmine Jones would become a first rounder the following year.

Evans grew up as a big fan of Notre Dame, which was a powerhouse when she was in high school. But she said the Fighting Irish did not recruit her. During her senior year of high school, after she’d signed with Louisville, she went to South Bend with her dad to watch the Cardinals play. Notre Dame thumped her future team 85-66.

After the game, she found Purcell.

“Don’t worry, Coach,” she told him. “When I get here, this’ll change.”

With a wealth of scoring in the lineup her freshman year, the Cardinals wanted her to focus on defense. The second game of the 2017-18 season, Louisville traveled to No. 5 Ohio State for a game televised on ESPNU. She entered the game with an assignment to guard Kelsey Mitchell, the Big Ten’s player of the year.

Evans immediately forced Mitchell into a turnover.

“Most freshmen would come in just flat-out scared,” Purcell said. “She’s guarding one of the all-time leading scorers, and she was like, ‘What’s up? I know you’re about to blow by everybody, but you’re not going to blow by me.’

“Body language is everything in basketball. And you’ve got to portray some toughness. You’ve got to have a little stank to you, like I’m gonna come at ya, with just grit. Not cocky, but we’ve got this. That’s what Dana Evans does. She might not be tall, but you can feel her passion. You can feel her energy.”

Jeff Walz weathered a storm with Dana Evans when she was a sophomore, and she went on to win back-to-back ACC player of the year awards. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

She did everything Jeff Walz asked of her in her freshman season. She ranked fourth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and was a nuisance on defense. She made the ACC All-Freshman team. The next year, Walz still wanted her to come off the bench. He told her the Cardinals were a better team when senior Arica Carter started and Evans subbed in and changed the tempo. But sometimes, Evans needed a little more convincing. Like that long night after the Florida State game.

“Our personalities are very much alike,” Walz said. “So we’ll bump heads at times. Sometimes kids need to vent. I’m OK with it. I’m able to go home and talk to my wife and vent. Sometimes players don’t have that person to talk to. So I tell them all the time, you can come up in my office and say anything you want. You can say I’m a dumbass for all I care. I’ll listen to you. And then we’ll have a discussion, and you might not like what you hear but I’m gonna tell you the truth. We are very honest with each other.

“She knows I care about her. She knows that I’m going to do whatever I can for her to have the most success she can possibly have.”

Evans was named the ACC Sixth Player of the Year after her sophomore season, but one of the biggest things she took from that year was a game against Central Michigan, a team that played a triangle-and-two defense and chose not to guard her at the 3-point line. Evans took that personally and worked on her 3-point shot before and after practice. She came back to the gym at night to shoot some more.

The next season, she hit 90 3-pointers and averaged 18 points and 4.2 assists. It was her team now, and Evans was the face of the franchise.

Her youthful angst was over. Evans became the first person in conference history to go from Sixth Player to ACC Player of the Year. Her clashes with Walz? Those remained an ongoing thing.

“We both are really competitive,” Evans said. “We really hate to lose. He knows it doesn’t take much to motivate me or get to me. If you tell me I can’t do something, I will spend hours working on that just to show you I can.”

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Louisville had “Courtsiders,” fans who, according to Purcell, “spend a lot of money to have courtside seats.” Evans became so popular that some of the Courtsiders would wear plastic glasses with her trademark long eyelashes on the rims.

“Dana is a figure we embrace,” Purcell said.

Evans is projected to be an early first-round pick in the WNBA draft in part because of her versatility. She hits 3s. Her quickness enables her to get to the basket and finish with layups or short jumpers. She can change a game with her defense.

Evans led the league in scoring (21 points), free throw percentage (92%) and was second in assists with 110. The Cardinals’ road to the ACC championship in late February ran, fittingly, through South Bend. They needed to beat Notre Dame to win the regular-season title.

That week, some Louisville players were grousing over who should start, and Walz became irritated. So he put every player’s name on a slip of paper, threw them into a grocery bag and drew out his starting five. Freshman Merissah Russell was one of the five names drawn, and when she found out that Evans’ name wasn’t picked out of the bag, she asked the coaches if the senior could start in her place.

Evans scored 26 points in the 78-61 victory. It was the fourth time in a row they’d beaten the team from her hometown state.

Dana Evans helped propel Louisville to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history earlier this season. Scott Utterback/Courier Journal

But once the postseason started, Evans struggled. She scored a season-low eight points against Wake Forest in the Cardinals’ first game at the ACC tournament, and in the conference championship game against NC State, Evans went 7-for-21 from the field. She missed the potential winning shot at the buzzer, and slumped to the floor, holding her face in her hands.

Her shooting slump has persisted in the NCAA tournament. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, she is scoring eight fewer points per game during the postseason, and has gone from a 45% field goal percentage to 31%. She is shooting just 17% from 3-point range.

In the first round against Marist on Sunday, she struggled enough that Walz sat her on the bench for much of the third quarter to regroup. The end is coming, and Evans was pressing. The next day, Walz tried to persuade her that she’s more than a scorer, and that she can help in other ways.

Louisville played Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA tournament Wednesday, and Evans missed six of her first seven shots. The Cardinals fell behind by 18 points, and everything Evans had spent four years working toward was slipping away. But she didn’t panic. She played defense. She trusted herself; she trusted the process. She hit a 3-pointer that put the Cardinals up 50-45 with 4:32 to go, a shot that Walz called “huge.” She finished with 14 points.

On a day in which Walz could’ve hammered away on the flaws, he said Evans was fantastic. They get to play again, on Sunday in the Sweet 16. Evans has another day and so much still to prove.

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