Ann Arbor — Jillian Dunston is Michigan basketball’s do-everything player. The Swiss Army knife. The enforcer. She is the defensive and emotional lifeblood of coach Kim Barnes Arico’s team and a major reason why the Wolverines are ranked No. 13 nationally and currently on a six-game winning streak.
Katelynn Flaherty, who this season became Michigan’s all-time leading scorer, male or female, and averages 23.4 points a game, and Hallie Thome, the team’s second-leading scorer averaging 16.7 points, are a ferocious one-two offensive punch. Then there’s Nicole Munger who adds 10.5 points per game. But it is Dunston’s grit and tireless effort who makes everything and everyone click, and has helped lead the program to its highest ranking since Dec. 24, 2001, when it was ranked 12th.
“It’s the dirty work that nobody really gets credit for, but I think you can build a whole program off players willing to do those things,” Dunston said. “I’m surrounded by Katelyn Flaherty, Hallie Thome, who are two incredible offensive threats. Offense wins games, they say defense wins championships, so I’m willing to do those things instead.
“I didn’t realize that was my thing until it became my thing, if that make sense. I did it anyway and then when Coach Arico continued to praise it, it made me want to do it even more. She put a lot more emphasis on it which made me want to do it more.”
Her line in the box score might typically be overlooked, but a careful scan reveals all the things she does that often go unnoticed. She leads the team in rebounds, averaging 9.3 a game and has a team-best 41 steals, and her 84 assists are second behind Flaherty’s 97. The 5-foot-11 senior forward also has 10 blocks. In a victory at Northwestern last Sunday, Dunston had a typical performance — four points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“She’s the unsung hero,” Barnes Arico said. “She does everything. She’s a difference-maker in our program. I say it publicly all the time, she’s arguably our MVP just as much as Katelynn is our MVP because of what she brings to our program, and that doesn’t show up in the box score.
“But if you’re a part of our team and if you’re really truly a women’s basketball fan and a fan of our program, you know all the intangible things she does to get our program going in the right direction.”
Dunston said she is the one who knows which buttons to push to motivate her teammates, whether it’s during a game and someone is in a slump or if someone needs a nudge during practice. Who pushes her buttons? Barnes Arico. At times, Dunston has resisted her coach’s coaching but in the end, she’s always understood it was to draw the best from her.
“We’re not the team we are without her, for sure,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s just a difference-maker for us. She guards the other team’s best player whether that’s the post player or the point guard. She has the ability and the quickness to do that. She’s become this year so much more relaxed, and she sees the floor and she’s become a really good passer. She was always a great rebounder. Now she’s become a really good passer as well.
“She takes care of the ball, doesn’t turn the basketball over. She’s playing with a lot of confidence this year and leadership. Her example for the younger kids is really incredible. She’s on that mission, and we talk about it all the time after that disappointment of last year, she’s the one that one got us in the circle that first day after and said ‘Coach, we’re going to win this thing.’ And she’s the one that came at the beginning of the year and said, ‘Coach, we’re gonna …’ and every time she says it to me, I initially don’t believe it and then it happens and think, golly, she’s right.”
Michigan’s NCAA Tournament snub last season has been well-documented. The Wolverines instead played in the WNIT, and it was Dunston who gathered her disappointed teammates the next day and told them they would get it together and win the WNIT.
The Wolverines earned the program’s first postseason banner by defeating Georgia Tech in triple overtime. Dunston played 52 minutes and “couldn’t walk for three days” in the aftermath, but her play was critical. She caused Georgia Tech’s leading scorer Zaire O’Neil to foul out and got the fifth foul on Yellowjackets point guard Imani Tilford, as well.
“It’s all a blur,” Dunston said. “I was just trying to do whatever.”
Dunston is roommates with Flaherty and is always impressed with how she and the other big scorers shrug off their offensive accomplishments. Maybe it’s not a conscious act-like-you’ve-been-there-before approach, but that, along with Dunston’s selfless play, are the hallmark of this Michigan team.
Michigan is 19-4, 8-2 in Big Ten play and faces Purdue on Thursday at the Crisler Center. Something clicked for the team after winter break, Dunston said, and they snapped out of their non-conference fog during which they played OK, but not well enough.
“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet, but I think we’re all clicking together in the best way,” Dunston said. “Everyone is confident and that’s been the difference.
“The best part about this, I couldn’t have imagined that we would ever been in this position that we’re in especially at the beginning of this season and then with everything we went through last year. I thought last year was the year we were supposed to do it. This year, we come in and we’re doing the things we’re doing now, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Dunson and Flaherty sometimes reminisce about how far they have come at Michigan since their freshman year (2014-2015) when the Wolverines went 20-15 overall, 8-10 Big Ten.
“It’s insane to see where we’ve come from,” Dunston said. “This is crazy to see where we are now. At the time, you never think things like this could happen.”
And they’re happening now because of a collective effort of individuals like Dunston, who know their roles and embrace them.
“Sometimes it breaks my heart because I think to the rest of the world she doesn’t get the accolades and the attention that Hallie does and Katelynn does, but from a coach who was a blue-collar player, from a person who was blue-collar person like she is, I appreciate and value what she brings to our team and I know we are not the program that we are without Jillian Dunston,” Barnes Arico said. “
“If she’s not doing what she does, we’re not winning games. It’s not a bunch of baloney. She really impacts our team with what she does.”