Toward the beginning of the week, Jillian Dunston had a feeling that she would be in the Michigan women’s basketball team’s starting lineup Thursday night.

But even though the sophomore forward was being put in the top-five rotation during practice, she knew nothing was for certain when playing for coach Kim Barnes Arico. She was going to have to fight for the spot, especially when it was between her, senior forward Kelsey Mitchell and senior guard Madison Ristovski.  

So before the Wolverines took on Xavier Thursday night, Dunston saw her name on the board before the game started and knew her time had come.

Crisler Center went dark, a spotlight shined on Michigan’s bench, and Dunston rushed through the tunnel and onto the hardwood for her first career start. 

She wasn’t even nervous.

“If I’m nervous, I get out of my game,” Dunston said. “I told myself not to think about it, just like any other game. I’m just starting this time.”

But it wasn’t like any other game. Dunston grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds and tied her career high in scoring (10) for her first double-double in the maize and blue — Michigan’s first this season. In arguably the best game of her career, Dunston helped the Wolverines (3-0) to a 92-54 win over the Musketeers.

Dunston helped to anchor the defense by grabbing 11 rebounds and tallying three steals, including one when she broke up a pass at half court and took the ball straight to the basket for a layup. Leading by example, the rest of the Wolverines followed suit and forced seven turnovers in the second quarter, using the momentum to go on a 13-0 run. Dunston also set the pace of Michigan’s fast break and helped create a few second-chance opportunities under the basket.

In some respect, she had started to look like former Michigan forward Cyesha Goree in disguise. 

“With the loss of Cyesha, we lost that motor,” Barnes Arico said. “Jillian is definitely one of a couple that have given us that spark.”

That spark started to ignite when Dunston stayed for the team’s optional spring season early in the summer, allowing her to step her game up to an entirely new level. Living up to the nickname “gym rat,” Dunston buckled down through the summer season as well.

Recently, Barnes Arico asked Dunston how much she works out. Every day, Dunston replied. Barnes Arico mistook that for an exaggeration, but Dunston meant every word. After Thursday’s win, Barnes Arico said Dunston might have been in the gym that afternoon getting extra repetitions in, even before a game.

For Dunston, it’s like an addiction.

Though Dunston beat out Mitchell for the fifth starting spot, Barnes Arico emphasized that the senior has played exceptionally at practice. According to her, the problem is that, “It’s hard to keep (Dunston) out of the lineup.”

“I think that’s really Jill’s game, and that’s only a little of what she can do,” said sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty. “I think you saw a spark of her. I think she’ll be really helpful this year for our team, and key to winning big games.”

Dunston knows how to score and rebound the basketball well, and she has also learned how to beat the fatigue that comes with a performance like Thursday’s, when she played a career-high 27 minutes. After a quick succession of possession changes, Barnes Arico noticed Dunston had stopped crashing the net as often. When she came off the court to rest, she said she wasn’t tired.

It might have been a bluff, and it might not have. Either way, one thing is for certain.

“She is probably one of our fastest, if not the fastest (player on the team),” Barnes Arico said. “She can beat anybody in a sprint and probably go the longest of anyone on our team.”

Added Dunston: “I kind of got tired, but tired is a state of mind. You kinda have to play through that.”

It’s that attitude that pushed Dunston to make every minute of her first start matter — an attitude that may keep her in the starting rotation for Sunday’s game against Hartford.

For a short time, though, Dunston can celebrate her hard work paying off. Thursday night was all hers.

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