LAS VEGAS (AP) — USC guard Aaliyah Gayles took another major step in her journey to return to the court 19 months after she was shot multiple times at a house party.
Gayles took the court in her hometown for team warmups Monday morning, hitting nine straight mid-range jumpers at one point. She also sang along with entertainer Datus Puryear, who was warming up to sing the national anthem while the 21st-ranked Trojans prepared to face No. 7 Ohio State.
When the lineups were announced, and the reserves made an aisle for the starters to run through, Gayles stood at the end to greet each one with a personalized handshake.
Though she didn’t play, the 2022 McDonald’s All-American sat near coach Lindsay Gottlieb and leaped from her seat when her teammates scored during the Trojans’ 83-74 victory over the Buckeyes.
“I know my time is coming, but I just went out there, just wanted to see how I felt just on warmups,” Gayles said through tears after the game. “I love being home playing, playing in front of them. And when I came out (for) warmups, I was like, ‘This is what I dreamed of, this is what I wanted.’”
Gayles, who starred at Spring Valley High in Las Vegas before committing to USC, was among several people who were injured when shots were fired at a house party in North Las Vegas in April 2022. She was shot several times and underwent multiple surgeries.
She was able to practice with her team this offseason. Gayles has her four years of eligibility remaining after being a medical redshirt last season.
“Prior to any of this game happening, her suiting up in a uniform is an incredibly important part of our team,” Gottlieb said, her voice cracking. “Coming out and warming up is important to acknowledge because it is not her endpoint, it is not her endpoint. She’s got a lot more. She’s just getting back into it. She’s gonna be on the floor before we know it. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that what happened here 18 months ago. It is her resilience, her faith, her belief that has gotten her here and she makes our team better every day.”
For her family and friends in attendance, Monday was a special moment.
“Watching her run out from the tunnel I felt chills up and down my body from excitement, happiness, and relief that Aaliyah is OK,” said Billy Hemberger, her high school coach. “I was thinking to myself that she could have been gone, but is a blessing that is still with us.
“She could have never played the game again, but fought her way back on the court. Do not doubt this kid, ever. She is so strong-willed and surrounded by so much love, that makes her unstoppable. This is just awesome.”
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