Countdown to 2015–16: MSU defensive stopper Dominique Dillingham ready for an even bigger role

Photo courtesy of AP Photo, Jason Getz

Dominique Dillingham averaged 5.7 points last season as a sophomore for a Mississippi State team that finished 27–7, but the stat that best defines her…

Well, it’s not a stat, really.

What Dillingham brings to the court is an attitude, effect and feel. It can be seen in the 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 1.8 assists and 0.7 blocks produced by the 5–9 guard. It’s what got Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer invested in her on the recruiting trail. It’s not often that a guard averages 11.3 rebounds (!) as a high school senior.

In 2012, Schaefer had just taken the head coaching position in Starkville, and he had to fill out his first full recruiting class. As Schaefer likes to say of Dillingham, We recruited Dominique for her toughness and intangibles — not her jump shot.

“She plays the way it’s supposed to be played,” says Schaefer. “I watched her in AAU, and she was guarding point guards to four players — with no reservations.”

Dillingham remembers coming up the ranks in AAU, her coaches offering a frequent refrain: If you play defense, you’ll play.

Schaefer wanted to infuse his new program with that kind of player. Here was the mentality that had flowed through the Texas A&M team he’d helped lead to the 2011 national championship, as an assistant coach.

He wasn’t going to create the offensive flow he wanted at Mississippi State, immediately. A defensive foundation had to come first. All-Americans would come later.

Dillingham hadn’t considered Mississippi State before Schaefer took the job. But she knew all about the former TAMU assistant. “He’d helped win a national championship, and that was a big thing for me, seeing such an experienced coaching staff at MSU,” she says.

Here was a coach who shared her philosophy: I’m more defensive-minded, so I knew it would be a good fit,” Dillingham says.

It didn’t take long for Schaefer to see the fire. Midway through her freshman season, Dillingham beat out a junior for a starting spot, which she kept for the final 14 games of ‘13–14. MSU went 22–14 that season, in large part, Schaefer says, because they played tough defense. Results tend to stem from such effort.

“She hasn’t come off the floor since,” says Schaefer, who can recall a game against Missouri in which Dillingham took six (!) charges. “And in her first two years, she’s probably made more big shots than anyone on our team. She’s not afraid to take that big shot.”

In ‘14–15, Dillingham started 31 games for a Bulldogs team that won its first 18 games and finished 27–7, including 17–1 at home. They made the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, and got to the second round. Dillingham averaged 31.1 minutes. In SEC play, she sat for just four minutes a night.

The Dillingham effect might have been best explained by a capsule in Mississippi State’s game notes, referencing to a Southeastern Conference clash, this past Feb. 22. Dillingham recorded 10 points at Alabama and came a rebound shy of a double-double, but she also blocked a last-second shot and claimed the rebound to preserve State’s 57–55 win.

Dillingham, guarding Duke star Becca Greenwell during last season’s NCAA tournament. Dillingham cites that second round loss as motivation for ‘15–16. (Photo courtesy of Gerry Broome, AP)

That’s one reason Schaefer’s had conversations with Dillingham this offseason about taking a step, offensively. He knows she can have an even bigger role for the team.

“I think this team is really talented,” Schaefer says. “We look like an SEC team, now, when we step off the bus. We’re 6–7, 6–5, and 6–3 inside — and athletic. Our guard play is tremendous.”

And yet, Schaefer notes, this team is still very young. There’s just one senior. To counter that, there’s confidence, and skill. Each player recruited knows the value of hard work.

Dillingham is the perfect example of this ethos. “I’m trying to get her to be more vocal now,” says Schaefer. “When you’ve got a player like ‘Dom’, who commands respect with how hard she practices and plays, you’ve got a tremendous chance for a leader. We need her to be that vocal leader for this team. She’s got every ingredient to do it.”

“I know I’m going to have a bigger load on defense,” says Dillingham, “and I’m going to have to step up on offense.”

So, she’s been focusing on her shooting this offseason. Add that to her innate fearlessness, and MSU has a go-getter when the game’s on the line. “I’m definitely not scared of the big moment,” says Dillingham. “I’ve been in a lot of big games since I’ve been (at MSU). I’m not scared of it.”

Dillingham has targeted a conference championship. She thinks MSU has the talent and depth to do it. They also have an edge, sanded from a tough loss to Duke in last season’s NCAA tournament Round of 32.

“I so wish we had that one back,” Dillingham says. “But I’m glad we got that experience. Now, we know how it is.”

Photo courtesy of Bill Simmonds

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops