James Madison point guard Dawn Evans has been nearly unstoppable on a basketball floor, playing much bigger than her 5-foot-7, 130-pound body would suggest she could.
She's used the tag of "too small" as motivation to become one of the top scorers in the country. Now Evans needs that tenacious mindset even more as she battles her most imposing opponent: kidney disease.
The affliction -- focal segmental glomerular sclerosis -- disrupts the filtering system in her kidneys, causing high blood pressure and sometimes leaving her with low energy reserves.
It's the same ailment that affected former NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott. Both received transplants and both returned to the court afterward.
When Evans was diagnosed in early December, doctors said her kidneys were in Stage 4, or functioning at about 20 percent efficiency, Evans' father, Rodney, said. At 15 percent, a transplant is recommended.
The family plans to fight first with medical and homeopathic treatments, but a transplant could be required as early as this summer, Rodney Evans said Wednesday.
Even as her mother, Rosalyn, brother Dale and other family members plan to get tested to see if they could be potential donors, Evans puts her problems aside when she's on the court -- focusing instead on her goal of leading the Dukes to the NCAA tournament.
"It's a huge goal, at the top of my list," she said.
There have been times, though, when she's been forced to sit out games. Last week, in a game at William & Mary, Brooks opted to rest Evans and his heavily favored team lost, 64-56.
"It's been extremely difficult dealing with it, but I try to play like I've never been diagnosed," said Evans, who takes medication, has her blood pressure checked regularly and keeps well hydrated to preserve her energy.
That natural pep, after all, is a big part of what has made her so effective. That, and being driven by the never-ending talk about being too small to compete at the highest level.
"It's just made me work that much harder to prove that I can play with anyone," the bubbly junior said. "When someone tells me that I can't do something, as cliche as it sounds, I really feel like I have to fight to prove that I can."
And prove it she has, over and over.
Evans will lead the Dukes (18-6, 8-5) into a pivotal Colonial Athletic Association game against Delaware (16-8, 8-5) on Thursday night. It's a matchup of Evans, once the nation's top scorer and who is now averaging 24.8 points per game, against 6-5 Elena Della Donne, a freshman who now leads the country at 25.8 ppg.
But while Della Donne arrived at Delaware known as the player who spurned mighty Connecticut as their top recruiting target, Evans' made her splash when she got to JMU.
As a freshman, she scored 22 points in her first game, and faceda triangle-and-two defense designed to slow her and former JMU teammate Tamera Young, the No. 8 pick in the 2008 WNBA draft.
She scored 38 in a game at Indiana, also as a freshman, and last December, on the day before her scheduled testing for the kidney ailment in Charlottesville, Va., she led the Dukes into a game against then No. 14 Virginia.
She scored a John Paul Jones Arena-record 38 points and led the Dukes to a 75-73 victory.
"Dawn Evans was just too much for everybody to deal with," Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said, lamenting that Evans made five 3-pointers, and the layup that proved the difference.
"Everything they do runs through her."
That, Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said, is just how he wants it.
"I've never had a kid, male or female, who is as skilled as she is," Brooks said.
Before taking over the women's program at JMU eight years ago, Brooks was a point guard under Lefty Driesell at the school in Harrisonburg, Va., and was a men's assistant for eight seasons.
Evans' parents met when both were star guards at Texas College, and her brother was an NAIA All-American at Bluefield (West Virginia) College, playing both guard spots.
Dale Evans is 8 years older and 7 inches taller, but that neither stopped his sister from following him around as a small child, or from being pushed around by him on the court.
The goal, he said, was to toughen her up, but it often didn't go over well.
"We would come home, and she would just be angry, not understanding why," Dale said, laughing at the memories. "She would go in her room and say 'He makes me sick' and close her door. I would go in my room and say 'She doesn't want to work' and close my door.
"But the older Dawn got, she started to understand."
Dawn, and her father, both credit Dale with helping make Dawn the player she is.
What no one can figure out is where she got her Pete Maravich-like range, the kind most players never get to display because they would be quickly benched by their coaches for taking a bad shot.
Brooks sometimes encourages her to move closer to the 3-point line before shooting, but said he has seen her make 26 footers on such a consistent basis he expects them to go in.
"All I see is that I'm open, but apparently I'm open because I'm so far behind the 3-point line," Evans said, laughing. "I talk to coach Brooks and he tells me to toe up to the line and once I start hitting those shots, then to go ahead and back up.
"When I'm hot, he doesn't stop me."
And why would he?
Not only can she get on a hot streak, she can put Brooks' mind at ease at the end of games.
"Against Georgetown, we were down 16 points and, during one of the timeouts, she looked at me and said, 'I got this, coach," Brooks said.
Evans scored 29 that game, seven in the final minute, and the Dukes rallied to win 79-76.
Now, however, she is in bigger battle.
But ask her about it, and she'll say: "I got this."