Indomitable will power and mental toughness drive Iowa's Tania Davis

Senior guard Tania Davis stands just 5 feet, 3 inches, but her indomitable will power and mental toughness have helped Iowa to a 9-2 record and No. 16 ranking. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

DES MOINES, Iowa -- In a packed gymnasium last Friday in a state rivalry game at Drake, Iowa guard Tania Davis did the one thing that first really got coach Lisa Bluder's attention on the recruiting trail years ago.

Davis stepped in and drew a charge against a player nearly a foot taller than her. Never mind the two knee surgeries and the shoulder injury she has battled through in college. Davis has never been afraid to be knocked over, because she has an indomitable will to get back up.

"She took so many charges, it was unbelievable," Bluder recalled of watching the teenaged Davis. "To do that in summer basketball -- to put yourself out there like that -- is pretty amazing."

But that's just the mentality of 5-foot-3 Davis.

"I've been trying to prove myself my entire basketball career," she said. "I was determined that I always going to be the one that had the most heart. I've loved the challenge."

Think she's just too small? Some Division I coaches did, and then never looked beyond that. They missed something, though.

"Certainly, there are some disadvantages when players are smaller," Bluder said. "But when you have the willpower like Tania does, you can make up for that.

"Having a player with that kind of personality, they just give you that advantage. You knew she was a tough kid mentally as well as physically."

Davis has had to be both. ACL tears in February (right knee) and December (left knee) of 2017 cost her chunks of both her sophomore and junior seasons, during which she was limited to 23 and 12 games, respectively.

But she's back as a senior for the 9-2 Hawkeyes, who are ranked No. 16 and finished their nonconference schedule with a 91-82 victory at Drake before 6,107 fans at the Knapp Center in an intense, entertaining game.

Megan Gustafson was the star. The senior forward had a season-high 44 points -- four off her career-high -- on 17-of-24 shooting, with 14 rebounds. Gustafson is averaging 26.5 PPG and shooting an absurd 74.7 percent from the field this season after leading the nation last year in scoring (25.7) and field goal percentage (67.1). Gustafson also is averaging 12.5 rebounds; she's the All-American who'll lead the Hawkeyes into Big Ten season Dec. 30 at Michigan State (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET).

But the 6-3 Gustafson smiles when you mention fellow senior Davis, who is averaging 11.4 points and 4.5 assists. Asked if she could imagine playing basketball as a foot shorter, Gustafson said, "The thing is, Tania makes it look easy. She plays bigger than her size. She's able to create, no matter who she's going against.

"She's a calm, cool, collected person, on and off the court. It's great for a leader to have that. Especially if other teams go on runs, she's able to gather us and calm us down. She's that presence that is always there, and I love that about her. I'm so glad to have been able to play with her these four years."

Davis is a born leader. There is thoughtfulness in what she says, and people listen to her. Davis is a native of Flint, Michigan, a city that has faced many difficulties, including now a years-long battle for clean water for many residents.

"It's very, very tragic," Davis said. "I have not had to deal with it personally because my family lives in the suburbs of Flint, but my grandparents are affected by it. They use bottled water. And I have friends who've been affected by it, too.

"It's just a very sad story. It's so long now that people have gone without clean water. We still need to figure out a way to get this fixed."

Yet Davis is proud of where she's from, especially the resolve people there have. And she knows well Flint's basketball history, including former Georgia and WNBA star Deanna Nolan, who went to Flint Northern High School. Davis had a family connection to the girls' basketball coach there, and when she was just 5 years old, she was able to come to practices and hang around with the team. Nolan was gone by then, but Davis went to see her play with the Detroit Shock when the WNBA team was still in Michigan.

Davis attended Goodrich High School, winning two state titles, and being named Michigan's Miss Basketball as a senior. At Iowa, she was named to the Big Ten's all-freshman team in 2016, averaging 8.1 points and 3.4 assists. She dealt with a shoulder injury then, but still played in every game and started 16.

Her first ACL tear happened Feb. 5, 2017, back in Michigan. The Hawkeyes led the Wolverines much of the game, but then Davis injured her right knee in the fourth quarter and Iowa fell 72-70. She rehabbed the injury while cheering on the Hawkeyes, who reached the WNIT quarterfinals that year.

Davis made it back for her junior season, but then injured her left knee in a victory at Northern Iowa on Dec. 17, 2017.

"The second ACL is even harder, because they already know how long it takes to rehab and how frustrating it can be," Bluder said. "And when someone is hurt, they often feel alienated from the team, and that is so much of their identity.

"Tania wants to be a coach, so I had her come sit in my office so she could job-shadow. Players see us in practices and games, but the rest of the time, they probably don't know what we do -- what goes into preparing for practice, or recruiting, or talking to our boosters. I would ask her for her opinions, and she would help me figure some things out."

Davis said it was a great experience that helped her a lot while also providing another connection to the team when she couldn't play. The Hawkeyes finished 24-8 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"I'm grateful for my entire coaching staff taking me under their wing," Davis said. "I learned the offense a lot better, and more about what she wanted on the floor. And I learned how to really watch film. To be in the coaches' office, and watch film effectively and relate that into practice and games, that's probably my biggest takeaway."

So far this season, Iowa's losses are to Florida State and No. 2 Notre Dame, teams that are both 11-1. The Hawkeyes beat their three fellow Iowa teams -- Northern Iowa, Iowa State and Drake -- with the most emotional of those victories coming at home in Iowa City against the Cyclones on Dec. 5. With 2.6 seconds left, Davis hit a step-back 3-pointer to give Iowa the 73-70 win before 6,289 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"I teared up a little bit, and I know my teammates did, too," Gustafson said. "With what Tania's gone through, to be able to hit that shot senior year -- the game-winner against Iowa State -- it was amazing.

"To see how she's stayed so positive through the rehab, and to come back and just keep playing with that confidence, I think it's really inspiring to all of us."

It was a sweet moment that Davis earned after months of pain and sweat while rehabbing. That made it all worth it, and she hopes those good vibrations carry through the rest of her senior season.

"Hats off to my teammates and coaches being with me every step of the way," Davis said. "And having confidence in me. After that shot went in, I was pretty emotional. I'll always want to strive for greatness and be the best I can possibly be. I know my hard work has paid off, and it's going to continue to pay off."