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Dana Evans began playing basketball in fourth grade and her ascension to being a consensus top-eight pick in Thursday’s WNBA Draft has surprised those closest to her.

Her competitiveness, refuse-to-lose mindset and Steel City determination allowed her to get back up when life would try to knock her down. This much is clear as The Times talked to coaches throughout her career to get their perspectives on the 5-foot-6 All-American from Gary, who is set to inspire a new wave of fandom for girls across the country and prove to those in her own city that you can be anything.

Evans, 22, followed her father, Damon Evans, to her oldest brother’s practices. As Justin Mitchell and his teammates were learning from Damon, Dana was watching. It led to her trying out — a surprise to her father — for her first organized team, and then making it.

“She was probably in fourth grade when she started playing, and she was really good,” Damon said. “Everything seemed natural. Everything just seemed to come pretty easy to her. We would do little drills when she was younger, and she caught on very fast.”

A lot of her coaching in middle school, which was a team coached by her dad, didn’t involve individual cone drills or practicing layups. Instead Damon and Dana watched games from all (Region prep games, college and pro) levels together, analyzing situations from a coach’s perspective. She developed a different vision for the game as a point guard.

Evans played up against girls one or two grades older than her. She welcomed and accepted the challenge while playing for Ralynn Crockett and Thomas Neal on those first AAU teams.

Crockett played for legendary coach Rod Fisher, who began training Evans when she was in fifth grade. It didn’t take long for a girl, who at the time was 5-0 and 82 pounds, according to Fisher, to turn college coaches' heads in a sixth-grade game.

“She took a charge and after that game (then-Valparaiso University coach Keith Freeman) came over and said, ‘I want to offer her a scholarship right now,’” Fisher said. “He was so impressed with her defensive skills. She just loved to play defense.”

Evans is the fourth of five children, which helped build up the competitiveness and refuse-to-lose mindset she showcases. She ran track in grade school, earning a top-10 finish in a national event, Damon said, competing in the 200 and 400. meters. She enjoyed dance, particularly ballet, a bit longer before focusing solely on basketball.

“I think they kind of helped each other,” Damon said. “The ballet was the core and balance and be able to get low to the ground on defense. And the track portion, she’s fast, she ran the 400 and she was really, really good at it and the 200. She even got down to nationals the second year. I want to say she placed seventh or eighth in the nation and she was really new at it.”

Evans hates losing. West Side made it to three regionals in her time there but never any further.

“To be the best she could ever be,” Fisher said of Evans’ motivations. “Especially if we lost, one year we lost in a sectional semifinal and the other three years we lost in a regional … she took that so hard. She would actually go a day or two, she was so upset with herself and maybe me and maybe the team, but she was so upset she would not eat. It just made her drive that much harder.”

By the time she turned in her West Side Cougars uniform, she had a list of accomplishments. She was the only player from Indiana named a McDonald’s All-American her senior year or to win gold with the USA Basketball Under-18 team in Chile. She was a two-time Times of Northwest Indiana Girls Basketball Player of the Year. She finished second to Karissa McLaughlin (Homestead/Purdue) for Indiana Ms. Basketball.

“I know she still thinks about that, and that was one of the driving forces that made her into the player she is now,” Fisher said of the Ms. Basketball voting. “Every time you knock the little girl down, she just gets right back up and (says), ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’”

'Growing up in Louisville'

College is a different beast.

“The accolades in high school, they’re great, but it’s what you’re able to do at the next level in college, and that’s going to give you your best assessment of where they’re going to be in terms of a professional career,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said.

Evans entered Louisville lore, making history by helping lead the Cardinals to four straight Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships. She was the first player in ACC history to win Sixth Player of the Year and then win ACC Player of the Year the following season, as she did making the jump her sophomore to junior year. She won the league’s top player award her junior and senior seasons and collected numerous All-American honors.

Louisville associate head coach Sam Purcell described Evans’ legacy as “special and unique.” She contributed to the Cardinals’ Final Four run her freshman season and led them to the Elite Eight as a senior.

“I think Dana, even her freshman year, the way she contributed on that team that went to the Final Four, showed that she had that desire and competitiveness to be able to have a chance to compete at a next level,” Walz said. “And then to watch as she was able to work on her individual game over the next three summers and three seasons just showed that she’s got that in her and she understands what it takes. It’s not just coming in over the summer and shooting for two hours. You’ve got to commit to it, and she did that every summer and that’s why she continued to improve each year.”

Evans was one of the fastest guards in college basketball, if not the fastest. That’ll be an asset to her professional career. But her physical maturity in college is what will elevate her game.

Fast as she was, she failed her fitness test as a freshman. That failure didn’t define her, but motivated her to hit a different level as she learned under strength-and-conditioning coach Kaiti Jones.

“That was the start of her realizing, ‘OK, I’m pretty good at basketball and I’m really fast, I’m getting stronger but the one thing I need to do is get fitter because if coach does decide to play me more minutes, I’ll need to finish games,’” Jones said. “Her sophomore year was the year she started to turn in terms of fitness, and she worked harder than ever in the month they were gone.”

Evans channeled her desire to win and challenged herself to be first in every drill. That led to her passing her fitness tests as a sophomore and junior, and joining a select few to pass on the first try as a senior.

“That’s when I knew this was a different Dana Evans. This is a different animal that is coming back,” Jones said. “Having her junior year cut short (due to COVID-19), that motivated her to work harder because she understood that there’s no guarantee there was going to be a senior year, and if it happened she guaranteed she was going to be ready 100%.”

And she was ready, averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game her senior season and grew as a leader as Louisville’s lone senior.

She struggled through the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, but by looking at her demeanor nobody would know that. She was calm, showed no signs of frustration or even tired at the game's end. She’s benefited from Louisville’s support staff.

“She worked with our mental performance coach, Dr. Vanessa Shannon, on just mentally being able to calm herself down, don’t get overworked about things, don’t get stressed out about things,” Jones said. “You’d be surprised how much you can calm down your heart rate, how much you can get your breathing to normalize if you can get your head in the right space.”

Walz challenged Evans after each season to improve her game: Improve as a shooter, passer and then making reads against defenses. Purcell worked on her individual skill set and Jones, of course, on rounding out a more fit athlete.

“You watch the WNBA players and NBA players and they make it look easy. It’s not easy,” Walz said. “It’s a lot of hours in the gym when nobody is watching is what gets them to where they are.”

Said Purcell: “It was awesome to watch a young girl from Gary, Indiana grow up here in Louisville, Kentucky.”

A hope-filled future

Evans has earned her keep. Sometime after 6 p.m. she’ll reach a dream that many don’t: reaching the highest level of competition in her field.

“Dana’s knocked down all types of stereotypes,” Damon Evans said. “She’s a 5-6 guard and she’s a first-team All-American. Always believe in yourself and what Dana would tell people is pray and work hard. That’s the thing that I think separates Dana from a lot of people. She’s a prayer, she believes that there’s a higher power, and she puts the work in.”

The WNBA Draft begins at 6 p.m. and can be viewed on ESPN. Many younger players will tune and see someone that looks like them and that they can identify with.

“She’ll always have the heart of every little girl across the country because of her height,” Purcell said. “She gives every little kid who's told they can’t play this game because they look a certain size, that you know what, I’m gonna change the narrative and I’m going to give every little girl hope that you can play with the big girls, too.”

Said Walz: “She’s a great role model for kids that have the aspirations of hopefully playing professionally and aren’t your typical 6-2, 6-3. I think Dana is going to be able to share her journey with people to understand how she got to where she is.”

And for Dana, it was important to celebrate this accomplishment in Gary with her family and those closest to her. She gives her hometown plenty of love in interviews, and now Gary, Indiana will be on television worldwide.

“She takes pride in it because Gary gets a lot of negative press, and some of it is warranted, but she also wants to let people know that there’s a lot of good things in Gary, too,” Damon Evans said. “Dana’s a great athlete but there’s kids here that can sing and dance and act that are really talented but that always gets overshadowed.

“Dana always wants to shed some good light on Gary to let people know that it’s not just all bad here. She just takes pride in that and wears it on her sleeve.”

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