- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Dawn Evans has a knack for making statements with a basketball in her hand, the court a bully pulpit from which she silences doubters and awes onlookers. She'll do the same thing Friday, but she won't need the ball or even a running clock. Evans will make a statement just by stepping on the court for No. 24 James Madison when it plays seventh-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Nearly two weeks after she tied her own school record with 38 points in James Madison's upset win at Virginia, ranked No. 14 at the time, Evans leads her Dukes into Durham, N.C. But another showdown with an ACC foe was hardly her biggest concern in the intervening days.
Evans missed her team's last game, an 85-57 victory over Siena on Sunday that kept James Madison unbeaten on the season. Instead of playing, she awaited the results of a kidney biopsy done at the University of Virginia Hospital on the recommendation of the medical staff at James Madison after she suffered from headaches and raised blood pressure in recent weeks.
Understandably, the waiting period proved frightening. Even as she tried to remind herself that the range of good outcomes significantly outweighed the bad ones, questions of whether she would be able to resume her career crept into her head. But Tuesday brought news that a diagnosed kidney disorder wasn't serious enough to prevent her from playing, and once tests confirmed there was no internal bleeding as a result of the biopsy, she was cleared for the Duke game.
"In terms of the kidney disorder they diagnosed me with, fortunately, it doesn't give me any physical symptoms that affect me basketball-wise," Evans said. "I'm feeling great; I'm glad to be out there and ready to play again."
Count it as the first and last time opponents will be happy to hear they have to face her.
Only a junior, a healthy Evans is one of the increasingly not-so-hidden gems on the national landscape. She averaged 23.8 points and 5.2 assists per game last season for a team that finished 24-10 and narrowly missed out on its first NCAA tournament appearance with Evans, losing to Drexel 64-58 in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game. Through six games this season, including the win at Virginia and home wins against Georgetown and Virginia Tech, she's ahead of that pace, averaging 26.5 points per game, good for second in the nation.
Drexel coach Denise Dillon is responsible for her fair share of sleepless nights among league counterparts, thanks to forward Gabriela Marginean. But Dillon also knows how they feel. A four-year starter at Villanova as a player and now in her seventh season as Drexel's coach, she has had as good a vantage point as anyone outside of Harrisonburg, Va., to watch Evans bloom -- and torment opponents.
"She is, by far, the most talented guard that I have, in my playing days and coaching days, seen out on the court," Dillon said. "You can't play off of her because she shoots the ball so well. You play up on her, and her dribble-penetration moves, her ball-handling skills are above what our girls see day in and day out. And then, again, when you try and double and you're forced to help, she finds the open person. She definitely does a little bit of everything on the offensive end. And then she's just as feisty on the defensive end."
The feistiness is easy to understand. Just 5 feet, 7 inches, and barely big enough to fill out even that frame coming out of high school, she long has dealt with skepticism about her ability to play an all-court game at the highest levels of the college game (she's active enough inside to have averaged around seven free throw attempts per game since the start of last season). She grew up in Clarksville, Tenn., as a fan of the Lady Vols and an admirer of the fast-paced style the neighboring Tar Heels played with Ivory Latta. But those weren't the programs seeking her out.
"I do think people doubted me," Evans said. "Even in high school, I found myself having to prove myself against the players in the state. It's always been that adversity I've had to face. But I think that's a lot of the reasons why I am where I am. And I'm happy to be; I don't think I could have made a better choice."
Much of that has to do with James Madison coach Kenny Brooks, a former point guard at the school under Lefty Driesell and the person Evans credits with making her a more complete scoring point guard -- emphasis distributed equally between the two parts of the title.
It also didn't hurt that fortune took her to Harrisonburg, hometown of another point guard with a great shot and a bit of a chip on her shoulder that she used to her advantage in disproving those who wondered whether she was big enough to be a world-class scorer. Evans has gotten to know former Maryland All-American Kristi Toliver well, picking her brain for advice on her role on and off the court, and picking up tips the hard way.
"I played her one-on-one, so she made some moves on me that I had no choice but to pick up," Evans said with a touch of ruefulness. "She created that separation as a small point guard, and that's something that she and coach Brooks find key. And that's what she did extremely well is finding that separation as a smaller guard and still finding a way to get her shot off."
They've played only twice, and Evans said Toliver "beat up on me pretty bad" in the first encounter. But the tally after two games? It's all square at one, at least by Evans' telling.
Toliver aside, Drexel's Dillon draws a comparison to another small guard who seemed to get more out of a body than people ever thought possible. Dillon sees some Allen Iverson in Evans.
"She's someone who you would think is undersized, but she just makes it happen," Dillon said. "She can shoot over people when she gets in the paint. And then, with the step-back, she creates so much space. So it doesn't matter if she's an undersized guard; she understands how to get the shot off no matter who is guarding her."
Relative to the level of competition in both cases, Evans seems to have a better supporting cast than Iverson had for most of his first run in Philadelphia. The Dukes returned their four leading scorers this season and added freshman Tarik Hislop, who has adapted quickly enough that she currently is second on the team in scoring and assists. But getting through the Colonial against the likes of Marginean, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, Old Dominion and VCU (the latter an at-large NCAA tournament team this past spring), will depend heavily on the star continuing to take control.
That much was reinforced at the World University Games trials this summer, where Evans had a chance to test herself against Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Jayne Appel and close to 30 of the best and brightest in college basketball. She didn't make the final roster for Team USA, but the experience nonetheless reinforced what becomes increasingly obvious with each passing performance.
"Listening to coach Brooks, he always told me that he believed that I was one of the best players in the country, and at some point, you feel like that's a way of your head coach just trying to motivate you and keep you working hard," Evans said. "But to actually be there and experience it and see that every word he told me was absolutely true, it was good for me.
"And it enabled me to go out there, compete and have the mindset that I needed to play like I'm one of the best players on the floor at all times."
For now, it's just good to know she'll be on the floor and healthy. She could be excused if there's a little rust Friday night against Jasmine Thomas.
Then again, betting against Evans hasn't made anyone look good yet.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
One of the nation's top players -- and second-leading scorer -- faces one of the nation's top teams Friday when Dawn Evans and James Madison play at Duke.