Louisville’s Evans garners national attention chasing titles

Dana Evans’ competitive spirit almost led her away from Louisville before she took a moment — several, in fact — to accept that her opportunities would come.

The Cardinals’ All-American senior guard has certainly optimized them: a Final Four appearance as a freshman amid a run of four Atlantic Coast Conference championships; consecutive selections as the league’s player of the year; an Associated Press preseason first team All-America selection last fall before recently leading Louisville to its first-ever No. 1 ranking.

Evans was named the ACC’s player of the year again by the league coaches on Tuesday and is a contender for several national player of the year awards — though her primary goal remains helping No. 5 Louisville (21-2, 14-2) earn its first national title.

“When I first set foot on campus, I had a lot of goals that I wanted to accomplish and a lot of things I wanted to get done here,” said Evans, who is on the cusp of 1,600 career points. “I’ve pretty much done everything that I could have dreamed about working for except one, and that’s obviously winning a national championship.”

It’s a tangible goal for Evans and the Cardinals, who begin ACC Tournament play on Friday as the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney.

But Evans has also played her way into discussions for the nation’s top women’s basketball player. She’s in contention for the Naismith Trophy, Wooden and Ann Meyers Drysdale awards as well as the Senior CLASS Award that recognizes contributions on and off the court.

Louisville began its promotional campaign for Evans earlier this month with the premiere of a docuseries on www.danaevans1.com. It traces her beginnings in Gary, Indiana, to now and features interviews with her, family, coaches and teammates.

Evans still isn’t comfortable with the individual attention, but said she has warmed up to it.

“It’s a good feeling, I will say, because I don’t think nobody really expected me to do the things that I’m doing but me, my family and the people that I’m around every day,” Evans said.

“So, me just proving people wrong and showing them that I can do these things helps me out a lot. And I’m embracing it because nothing was given to me.”

Evans is averaging ACC bests of 21.0 points per game and 94% free throw shooting, the numbers demonstrate the offensive confidence she seems to have always possessed. She graduated from West Side in Gary as Indiana’s No. 6 all-time scorer with 2,832 points, including a 35.8-point average as a senior.

Her high school coach, Rod Fisher, sees pretty much the same player now, perhaps with a quicker first step to the basket. And whatever flaws his former star notices in her play are often corrected through lots of gym practice time — even when it’s going well.

“Dana hates to lose, and Dana is going to put in the time to make it,” Fisher said in a phone interview. “She’s probably in the gym right now. She’s the hardest person in the world on herself, and so she’s going to work.”

Evans was determined to show her skills right away at Louisville, but the Cardinals had All-American guard Asia Durr and veteran Arica Carter running the point. Though she made the ACC All-Freshman team before earning the sixth player award the next season, the admittedly stubborn player still pondered transferring as she struggled with her role and adapting to Cardinals coach Jeff Walz.

“A lot of people would have given up, a lot of people would have transferred and went somewhere else where they were a starter or the star on the team,” Evans said last month in a Zoom call, becoming emotional. “But my parents, they raised me different. They wouldn’t allow me to just quit.”

Walz wasn’t about to let her do it, either. He reassured Evans that her moment — and minutes — would come if she worked to make it happen and learn from her seasoned teammates.

“We sat down as a freshman and went through what her goals were,” Walz said. “And with that comes a lot of, OK, if that’s what you want, here’s what you have to do.

“The maturity she’s grown with from her freshman year to now, it’s been pretty remarkable. We were a pain in each other’s butts there for a while. … 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 and take your time and be patient.”

Counseling sessions with university sports psychologist Vanessa Shannon began after Evans’ freshman season have also helped her. Evans cites her religious faith also as a key to her support system.

Evans has not only carried the load with double-digit scoring every game this season, but has worked to make those around her better.

“She’s the only one who’s been to the Final Four and she’s played in a lot of big games,” said junior guard Kianna Smith, a Cal transfer who has become Louisville’s No. 2 scorer. “So, a lot of us look up to her and she’s our leader.

“I think I’ve gotten a lot better over my two years here, just playing with and against her in practice every day. I’m excited to cut down some nets with Dana.”

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More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Poll: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll

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