Jillian Dunston: The unsung hero of Michigan women’s basketball
‘Coach, they made a mistake.’
At the Michigan women’s basketball team’s Media Day, coach Kim Barnes Arico reminisced about the day after her team wasn’t selected to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. As the players circled up before practice, with tears in their eyes, Jillian Dunston made one thing clear – the Wolverines should’ve been included in March Madness.
But the then-junior knew their season wasn’t over and that there was still work to be done.
“It’s our job to go out to prove to everyone in the world that they made a mistake,” Barnes Arico recalls Dunston saying. “Michigan is one of the best teams in the country. We should be represented in the NCAA Tournament.”
Under the leadership of Dunston, the Wolverines went into the Women’s National Invitation Tournament with a chip on their shoulders. That mentality carried them throughout the competition. Michigan won six straight games – including a triple-overtime win in the finals over Georgia Tech – to claim the program’s first ever WNIT title.
“Not being selected to the tournament was heartbreaking,” Dunston remembers. “To think that our year was in the power of a few peoples’ hands, and they just tossed it like that was crazy.”
And with a smile on her face, Dunston is quick to point out that proving the tournament committee wrong and playing a role in winning the WNIT Championship is the highlight of her career. But finding her role wasn’t always easy.
Highly recruited players such as Dunston were used to being the go-to players – they expect to be the one scoring the ball. That’s not Dunston. She’s the one doing the little things.
Playing at Academy of the Holy Cross in Silver Spring, Md., Dunston was a highly-touted recruit – ranked by ESPN.com as the No. 24 small forward nationwide and by ASGR as the No. 98 overall prospect. Given her achievements in high school, a successful career at the college level seemed likely. But for Dunston, it took time to develop.
As a freshman, Dunston didn’t start once. In fact, she spent most of her time on the bench – playing only nine minutes per game and averaging a pedestrian 1.7 points and 2.6 rebounds.
“The early part of her career was tough. It was a journey,” said Joe Dunston, Jillian’s father. “Learning to be a major player on the floor and contributing is hard work. She had to get to where Coach (Barnes Arico) wanted her.”
Going from a high school star that received college offers from over 60 schools to just another player may be difficult for anyone. But that is the harsh reality many college athletes face, and Jillian was no different.
“(Freshman year) was frustrating,” Dunston said. “Especially coming out of high school where I rarely came out the game.”
But Dunston had an advantage others didn’t: her father.
Growing up, Dunston learned from Joe, who played college ball at Tufts University. Despite strong basketball ties, Joe took a more hands-off approach by surrounding her with the best coaching possible.
But Joe did coach Dunston in certain ways. As he explained, he implemented a strong sense of work ethic, a lively personality and an appreciation for the game. And while Joe takes credit for Dunston’s personality, he gives kudos to his daughter for putting in the hard work necessary to elevate her game.
A lot has changed over the years. Joe admits that Dunston is a better player than him, but he could “possibly” beat her in a game of HORSE.
Backyard competitions aside, Dunston’s Michigan teammates have noticed the work ethic Joe instilled.
“The work ethic and the theme of ‘hardest-working team in America’ is set by our other senior Jillian Dunston,” Barnes Arico said at Media Day. “If you’ve watched us play, (Dunston)… will do everything that’s needed to be done to help our team be successful. Whether that’s taking a charge to win a game, whether that’s a dive on the floor for a loose ball, get a key rebound or whatever we need to do.”
This was on full display throughout the WNIT run, where the senior amassed 54 rebounds – including 13 in the championship game. The forward also took a crucial charge at the end of regulation, forcing Georgia Tech’s leading scorer Zaire O’Neil out of the game. Then she hit two clutch free throws in the second overtime to pull Michigan ahead of the Yellow Jackets.
Those efforts found their way onto the stat sheet. What Dunston did before the start of the third overtime didn’t — but was perhaps even more important.
She told her teammates that they would win by 10. This must have given the Wolverines the confidence they needed. They outscored Georgia Tech 13-3 in the final overtime, winning 89-79.
None of this should be a surprise. Dunston’s grind-it-out mentality, hard-nosed style of play and persistence on the glass has been a constant throughout her career. With 565 rebounds, Dunston ranks 16th in program history. If she can replicate her 286 boards from last season, she will finish tied for second most all-time.
That ability helped her as a sophomore, as Dunston’s role increased, playing 19 minutes per game and making nine spot-starts. But the real strides came between her sophomore and junior seasons. All the dedication paid off. All the hours of training. All the time in the gym.
“I think patience and confidence was the biggest thing that propelled me my junior year,” Dunston explains. “I learned the impact I can make. I don’t have to be the leading scorer to have an impact on this team. I think that’s why I was able to have such a successful season.”
Last season, Dunston finally became an impact player, starting every game at forward spot while averaging 5.8 points per game and a team high 7.7 rebounds.
A lot of what Dunston brings to the court often gets overlooked. Grabbing rebounds and playing solid defense isn’t as glamorous as scoring 20-plus points a night. Players like Katelynn Flaherty and Hallie Thome consume much of the spotlight, earning the preseason and postseason accolades. This doesn’t bother Dunston, but she does envy her teammates’ ability to light up the scoreboard.
“I don’t mind not being the highlighted player because I know what I do for this team,” Dunston said. “But some days I do want to be that leading scorer. I sometimes do wish I could put the ball in the hoop like Hallie and Kate can. But you take your role, you embrace it, and you do the best you can.”
Dunston already does the little things well. This offseason, she worked on becoming more like Flaherty and Thome — and the scorers have taken notice.
“I think she’s going to be a big scoring threat,” Thome said. “Her ability to attack the basket and to be able to knock down a jump shot has really improved.”
Dunston doesn’t need to score 20 points per game — her other contributions do enough. But her offseason efforts to add another aspect to her skillset only shows how determined she is to help her team improve upon last year’s finish.
Dunston has clearly found her role on the team as a hard-working rebounder that does all the little things. Yet, all that Dunston contributes doesn’t go unrecognized by her teammates.
“She’s grown so much since our freshman year,” said Flaherty, Dunston’s roommate. “She’s an incredible athlete. She has great speed and quickness and she rebounds well for us.”
Dunston’s most valuable assets are intangible and cannot be seen in the box score; she prides herself on her leadership skills.
“Everybody looks up to her,” said freshman guard Desha Church. “And we all respect her.”
Not only is she a leader, but anyone that watches Dunston play can see the energy and passion she approaches the game with. Whether it’s going up for a rebound, ripping the ball out of the hands of the opponent or laying out for a loose ball, she feels that she “can bring a spark when needed” – and her teammates agree.
“She is a positive energy all the time,” Flaherty explained. “She’s probably one of the funniest people I know. She always looks on the bright side of things and it is very inspirational to be around her.”
Her buoyant personality is clear from just watching how she interacts with teammates prior to games – dancing, laughing and performing elaborate handshakes. This vigor was immediately evident to freshmen such as Church.
“Her energy at practice is – well, if she wasn’t at practice, you would notice,” Church said. “She makes a presence. I’ve never seen her down before and she just makes you feel good if you’re down. And even outside of basketball, she is always positive.”
This sort of high-energy player and personality is what Barnes Arico saw out of Dunston as a high school recruit.
“I think every program needs a Jillian Dunston,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s just a really special kid and we’ve been fortunate to have her in our program.”
This season, the Wolverines will look to Dunston to continue their success and avoid another late-season skid.
Looking back, Dunston admits that the Wolverines may have let their ranking in the top 25 get to their heads. She acknowledges that the losing streak hurt them in the end, and likely cost them a trip to the NCAA Tournament – and all they can do now is learn from it.
She also explained that finding out that the Wolverines weren’t selected to the NCAA Tournament was devastating – and this motivates her.
As a senior, Dunston feels a responsibility to establish the team’s culture and not allow the group to become complacent. This may prove the difference in earning an NCAA bid or not. If the Wolverines learn from last season and make adjustments, Dunston believes Michigan will continue to make national name for itself.
And with Media Day marking the beginning of a new season, Dunston can’t help but smile.
The season hasn’t started yet, but Dunston’s sure of one thing – “This year is going to be even better.”