When Jhileiya Dunlap was called up to the Dreher Blue Devils’ varsity squad as an eighth grader, she was not sure of what was ahead in her basketball career.
But her coach had a pretty good idea.
“Jhileiya is a remarkable talent and we noticed that when she came and played the end of her eighth grade year with us,” coach Teresa Jones said.
When Dunlap, now a 6-foot-2 sophomore, gave life to the team in the first quarter of the 2011-12 Class 3A championship game, a crowd of thousands got a glimpse of her potential.
“She sparked the team to our comeback,” Jones said.
In that game, Dunlap — then the squad’s youngest player — came off the bench with the Blue Devils trailing by eight. She quickly scored four points, grabbed two rebounds and dished out an assist to get Dreher within one possession. The Blue Devils went on to defeat Wade Hampton, earning the program’s first title in a decade.
“When she put me in, I was kind of nervous, but it was a moment that I could celebrate and remember, to have that chance,” said Dunlap, who scored eight points in that game.
To play a crucial role in her team’s state title game was more than she had dreamed.
Two seasons later, Dunlap can be counted among the team’s leaders. The forward/center leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 16 points and eight boards.
“She can be one of the best players to come out Dreher High School because she just can do it all,” Jones said. “As she matures and as she develops her game and gets better, she’s going to be a top notch player.”
Dunlap said having Jones’ confidence helped motivate her, and having talented mentors like Kaydra Duckett and Makayla Johnson, both Division 1 signees, as teammates gave her a clear vision.
“Kaydra and Makayla, they’re sisters to me and I look up to them,” Dunlap said. “When they were undefeated (in middle school), I always thought I could be the same way.”
Johnson said she aims to be a model of mental toughness for Dunlap.
“Hopefully, she’ll learn from me how to stay in the game. That every game counts and you have to play like it’s your last, and give it everything, until the end,” said Johnson.
Jones said playing with two of the state’s top seniors enhances Dunlap’s play. “As she works on her game and develops that killer attitude, she will be that exceptional player, as well.”
Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419