Junior forward Jillian Dunston hasn’t had an easy job the past couple games. The Michigan women’s basketball team has assigned her the task of shutting down the opposing team’s best player each night. On Wednesday night, Dunston proved her worth, once again, as a defensive stopper during the Wolverines’ 80-54 win over Northwestern.
“My body hurts from guarding all these All-Americans,” Dunston said with a laugh.
Dunston has marked up against two of the best players in the Big Ten over Michigan’s past two contests: first against Nebraska’s sophomore forward Jessica Shepard, and then Northwestern’s senior forward Nia Coffey.
By all accounts, Michigan’s matchup against the Wildcats was supposed to be a close game. The Wolverines are third in the Big Ten standings, while Northwestern was sitting only one spot behind them, tied for fourth.
Yet, as the score indicates, Michigan pulled away early, with a 12-3 lead in the first five minutes and never let the Wildcats catch up. And according to Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, it was because of Dunston’s effort.
“I just think we locked in on the defensive end,” Barnes Arico said. “They’re led by an All-American candidate in Nia Coffey, and Jillian Dunston… had her 1-for-10 at the half. Just really incredible.”
Coffey averaged 19.6 points coming into the faceoff against the Wolverines. But with Dunston shadowing her, she finished with an inefficient 16 points, shooting just 6-for-20 on field goal attempts. Dunston’s previous experience guarding Shephard contributed to her success against Coffey.
“Prior, we played Nebraska,” Dunston said. “And it was a similar game plan, where their power forwards are their most powerful players, and I knew I had to match up with them. But my teammates helped me a lot. Like a lot, a lot.”
Not only did Dunston stick to her mark like glue, but she was all over the paint too, grabbing 14 rebounds — just one shy of her career high. Rebounds have been a huge focal point for the Wolverines this season. Dunston has taken that mentality to heart and encourages her teammates to do the same.
“When it comes to rebounding, Jillian’s on me all the time,” said freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick, who had seven rebounds of her own against the Wildcats.
Added Barnes Arico: “She has really become one of the best defenders in our conference with what she’s been able to do. She’s one of the best rebounders on our team. … She’s our emotional leader for sure.”
While she seems to have defense down pat, there were a few times that Dunston was afforded opportunities to take more offensive control against Northwestern. Wide-open behind the 3-point line more than once, she passed the ball off to a teammate instead of taking a clear shot.
Dunston, while consistent on defense, scored just four points.
“Sometimes I pass too much or I’m too passive,” Dunston said. “I need to be a threat in order to create for my teammates. It’s kind of a paradox, of creating, not creating too much, creating for yourself, but not being selfish.”
Even though there is room for improvement offensively, Dunston’s defensive game is arguably responsible for Michigan’s two latest wins. For now, she plays the exact role that the Wolverines need her to, and has worked hard to improve on it.
“She has had a lot of tough assignments,” said senior guard Siera Thompson. “Especially the last few games. But she has taken the challenge and she’s been in the film room studying the other players’ moves. We’re so proud of her, because a couple years ago we didn’t know if she would be able to take on that challenge and we’ve seen the growth in her.”