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Aaliyah Gayles is the joyous spirit behind USC's rise to a No. 1 seed in women's NCAA Tournament

LOS ANGELES (AP) — As JuJu Watkins and the rest of Southern California's starting lineup is introduced, each player stops in front of Aaliyah Gayles. The reserve guard then goes through a series of fist-bumps, handshakes and courtesy bows with her teammates that end with them smiling and fired up to take down the opponent.

Helping revive USC's women’s basketball program — which won back-to-back national championships in 1983 and ’84 — was attractive to Gayles “because I’m always going to love the underdog. I feel like this is where you grow, this is where you become stronger.”

“I feel like we’re proving a lot of people wrong right now,” she said.

Gayles has been defying conventional wisdom since that night in April 2022 when she was shot numerous times at a house party in North Las Vegas. She signed her national letter of intent from a hospital bed, calling USC “the best thing I ever committed to.”

The Trojans' rise to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after being ranked all season and winning the Pac-12 Tournament coincided with Gayles' first year back on the court.

She received the first Tammy Blackburn Inspiration Award at the Pac-12 Tournament in her hometown of Las Vegas. Named for the Pac-12 Network broadcaster, who has had breast cancer since 2017, it honors a league athlete, coach or staff member who shows courage, resilience and unbreakable spirit in overcoming adversity.

Gayles averaged 1.4 points while appearing in seven games this season, most recently on Feb. 9 against Arizona State.

“It takes a selfless person to be able to still be happy even though they’re not seeing the court as much,” said teammate Taylor Bigby, who played against Gayles from middle school to high school.

Statistics don’t reveal Gayles’ true impact on her team. In recent weeks, she played on the scout team in practice. Her mentality is a winning one and it’s become contagious among her teammates.

“Every day she’s going hard, roughing us up on defense, she’s just a vital part of our team,” said Watkins, an Associated Press All-American. “She brings so much leadership and just positive energy to the team every day, and we need it. She’s a part of this family and we couldn’t do what we do without her.”

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb, a parent herself, worried at times that this season would be harder on Gayles because she wasn’t getting many minutes and when she did the 20-year-old redshirt freshman guard might not feel like her old self.

“There were times in the process of coming back, even when she was cleared, where she would have two or three good days and then a minor setback or a good week and then something really flares up,” Gottlieb said. “I just think she’s been remarkable with sort of giving herself the grace to get back into it.”

Gayles surprised herself by recovering in a year’s time after doctors told her it was going to take longer than that and warned she could lose a leg.

“I just feel like my energy and my demeanor, I didn’t want to give up, I didn’t want to stop playing basketball,” she said. “I pushed myself so hard to stay who I am, it’s like my body reacted to that."

She suffered fractures in both arms and legs and endured multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Last season, she didn’t play. Instead, she followed a relentless schedule of physical therapy, rehab and follow-up surgeries.

“Many people don’t survive things like that or even come back from that mentally and I feel like she has,” Bigby said. “The biggest thing is how inspiring it is just to see somebody have the drive every day, the motivation to get up and keep fighting."

Gayles turned her time on the bench into a study lab, observing the speed and organization of the college game and envisioning what plays she would make in certain situations.

She finally got in her first game as a Trojan on Nov. 10, with Watkins and her other teammates on their feet cheering from the bench.

“When she called my jersey number that little me inside was like lit up, smiles all over her face,” Gayles recalled. “At first I was nervous until I ran up the court a couple times and then I finally felt my juice back. It felt like I was back to my old self playing basketball again.”

A couple weeks later, Gayles hit her first 3-pointer and the USC bench erupted again.

“She’s faced so much adversity and she still has a smile on her face,” Watkins said. “She’s never comparing herself to somebody else. She just always has a great mindset and that’s definitely something that I admire about her. It’s very rare to find in people.”

Gayles resists any depiction of herself as a victim. She doesn’t seek sympathy, yet knows “these wounds are not going nowhere so I got to tell them one day why I got wounds on my legs and arms.”

The shooting remains unsolved. North Las Vegas police recently cited a lack of information provided to investigators by multiple people who were at the house that night for creating a “difficult challenge” in solving the case.

Gayles doesn’t trouble her mind with any of that. And she chooses if and when she even wants to discuss that night.

“To this day, I still stay with a positive mind because I know a lot of people who probably went through what I went through is like down and I feel like there should be always a shoulder for them to lean on because there was a shoulder for me to lean on,” she said.

Gayles is bolstered by a strong support system outside her teammates. Her father, Dwight Gayles, moved to Los Angeles to be nearby; her mother, Malkia Lockett, is a regular visitor from Las Vegas and she has three siblings.

“They can’t stay away,” Gayles said, smiling, “but I love them for that.”

Already injury prone before the shooting, Gayles’ hurts have helped inspire her ambitions beyond basketball. She wants to eventually work in sports medicine after seeing the work done on her by athletic trainers and physical and occupational therapists.

“They really do a lot for athletes and I feel like they don’t get enough recognition, so it’s more of me just wanting to be in their shoes and maybe help another athlete that was probably in my boat, too,” she said.

She’s already assisting others through her NIL. Gayles offers a mental health check-in and motivational coaching.

“Mental health is a big, big reason why some of the athletes are hurting inside but no one knows it,” she said. “That needs to be talked about.”

On Gayles' left abdomen is a vertical tattoo with the word blessed and a red cross. The phrase ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is tattooed on her left arm.

“I just want people to know me for who I am and not the girl who obviously got shot numerous times. I’m still a human and not a superhuman, but I try,” she said.

Gayles is looking ahead to next season with a plan to hit the weight room to increase her strength and body mass. Eventually, she sees herself playing in the WNBA or overseas.

“It’s still never lost on me what a joy it is to see her every day,” Gottlieb said. “She is a walking miracle.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness