How Iowa's Tania Davis blasted through ACL rehab and returned months ahead of schedule
IOWA CITY, Ia. — This past Feb. 19, while Iowa blew its 10-point lead at Purdue and effectively dropped itself from serious NCAA Tournament consideration, Tania Davis was back in Iowa City, laying down in bed with a torn ACL in her right knee.
As her teammates were outscored 25-5 in the third quarter, as they struggled without a Davis-sized jolt of energy, all she could do was watch.
And it killed her.
"It was so hard," Iowa’s junior point guard remembered at Monday’s media day. "Just to not second-guess myself, not question as to why this happened."
Davis had torn her ACL 11 days prior at Michigan. She had surgery soon after. Normally, the recovery time for that surgery is about 9-12 months. Coaches hoped she’d return by Christmas — or the start of Big Ten Conference play, at the earliest.
Well, she’s back now.
Two months ahead of schedule, Davis is a full-contact, full-speed participant in practice, and she’ll suit up as a starter for Iowa’s Nov. 5 exhibition against Minnesota State-Moorhead.
"I can't go anywhere without everybody asking me, whether at the grocery store, the gas station, or wherever, 'How's Tania doing?'" head coach Lisa Bluder said Monday. "I know people are very interested in knowing. I know I probably have the biggest smile on my face about this one."
Yeah, she did. So did Davis. So did her teammates. So did associate head coach Jan Jensen, who knew Davis had torn her ACL right when she fell to the court in Ann Arbor.
"The first 48 hours were just awful," Jensen said. "You just want to hug her and take away those tears and battle your own. But she’s kind of that too-cool-for-school look. She never gets too high, never too low, and she had that approach.
"It’s just really fun to see her attack that comeback like she attacks breaking down an opponent."
Davis said those first few weeks — especially watching that Purdue loss — formed a sort of rock bottom for her. Especially considering how well she was playing. She had started all 23 games and averaged 10.9 points, 4.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds and nearly 31 minutes. She had recorded nine season-highs in her past six games. She led the team in free-throw percentage (87.8) and was third in 3-point shooting (33.3 percent) among those with 10 or more shots.
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There were lots of "low points," Davis said. She’d cry. She’d ask, "Why me?" She’d rehab hard some days, then not feel like rehabbing at all on others.
Eventually, though, she found joy in the small things — something you so often hear from athletes undergoing rehab. Now, doctors say she doesn’t even need to wear a brace. She’s still wearing it for now.
"I found a lot of joy in just walking, getting off my crutches," Davis said. "I found a lot of joy in that. To be able to jog a little bit. I found a lot of joy out of everything. I mean, you could ask (guard teammate) Alexis Sevillian, you could ask my mom — whenever I did something new, they were the first people I told and I was a kid on Christmas again."
She also followed the medical staff's direction to the letter when it came to her physical therapy. That willingness to take advice is what makes Davis such a unique talent, said Jason Gray, her coach from Goodrich High in Michigan.
Gray was at the Crisler Center watching Davis the day she tore her ACL at Michigan. He knew immediately she'd bounce back ahead of schedule.
"Fortunately, it was one of those tears that aren't the absolute worst," Gray said, "and she's just good at doing what you ask her to do. And she's especially patient. That was something I'd talk to her about during her rehab; she didn't seem to get too frustrated when things got bad."
When it came time for Davis to play again, Bluder was obviously nervous. Davis, who stands all of 5-foot-3, is a shifty point guard. She relies on quick zig-zaggy motion and okie-doke moves to score around bigger posts. That’s asking a lot of the knees, of the ACLs.
"First practice of the year, she took it in (on an okie-doke)," Bluder said, "and I looked at one of my assistants and said, 'Well, that's over. That's not going to hold her back.'"
Added Davis: "The first time we did finishing moves and doing a jump stop (in the first practice), knowing that I could do it again and do it effectively put me at ease, and it put everything to rest. It let me know that I can do this again."
Iowa isn’t just glad Davis has returned so quickly. It really needed her back.
A tumultuous offseason that saw three players with big projected roles leave the program left the roster at 11. And the two incoming freshmen likely won’t play.
Davis said she isn’t afraid on the floor. She acknowledged the mental recovery was harder than the physical part. But she’s fully recovered now — on both fronts. She’ll jump cut, she’ll okie-doke, she’ll juke players out like she did before her injury.
And she can’t wait.
"Don’t get me wrong: Playing against my teammates is all fun," Davis laughed. "But just to be able to be out there and play against other people and to just play in a game-like setting, it’s exciting to me."
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.