Spurred by head coach Vic Schaefer’s constant praise for Dominique Dillingham, his bi-weekly explanations that she’s the catalyst for Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team, one might expect to pull up the season-long stats and find the junior guard as the team’s leading scorer. Or leading rebounder. Leader in assists, steals, blocks – leader in something.
Here is a list of categories Dillingham is top four on the team in: scoring (third, 7,7 points per game), assists (third, 51 total), three-pointers made (third, 18), blocked shots (fourth, nine total), steals (second, 36), rebounds (fourth, 4.2 per game), charges taken (second), free throws made (fourth) and field goals made (fourth).
Now, here is a list of things she’s first on the team in:
That’s it. That’s the list. Dominique Dillingham, fuel to MSU’s fire, doesn’t lead her team in a single thing.
Nothing measurable, anyway. And that’s what Schaefer likes so much about her.
“Her will, period, separates her,” MSU’s head coach said when asked what it is about Dillingham that makes her so important.
“I just compete,” Dillingham said. “That’s the biggest thing, just competing, trying to be the best I can and trying to beat other people out in other things, being tough against competition. That’s the biggest thing I offer.”
It’s a sign of how true her words are, how competitive she is, that she’s managed to affect the game in every single facet, as evidenced by her presence in just about all possible statistical categories. That competitiveness, in fact, is exactly why Schaefer first recruited Dillingham when he got to MSU almost four years ago. He didn’t recruit her for scoring and filling up stat sheets. He wanted a competitor.
“We were void of that when we got here,” he said. “She brings that competitive nature and competitive spirit every day in practice. It’s something, obviously, that I can’t do without. If we were to have a class conflict with her, I’m not practicing without her.”
Oh yeah, practice. Dillingham is the classic try-hard player. The 40-year-old guy at the gym wearing sport goggles and going way too hard for a casual game of pickup. Annoying at the Y, absolutely necessary in the SEC.
Sophomore guard Blair Schaefer, daughter of Vic and teammate of Dillingham, recalls instances of Dillingham having to be literally pulled out of drills. Even in practice, that competitive drive sparks up. She won’t quit until she’s forced to. That’s why she was voted team captain, and it’s also why teammates listen to her when she has something to say, good or bad.
For as big and natural as her smile is both off the court and on, the level of her intensity matches, if not exceeds, her cheery disposition in moments of competition.
“She’s kind of the glue to our team,” the younger Schaefer said. “She makes everyone on our team better, not only as a captain, but she makes people want to get out of their box and understand the game better.”
That leadership translates to games, where Dillingham is never shy about being vocal with her teammates, whether they need praise and encouragement or just a swift kick in the butt. Few people on the team could do that and get away with it without being hated by their teammates, but it’s perfectly safe for Dillingham. Her teammates respect her too much to ever not take her seriously.
Much of that is because there’s nothing her teammates do that she can’t. Rebounding? She gets boards over players a head taller than her. Scoring? She hits some of State’s biggest shots. She does it all, and because she does it all, she can teach it all.
“She can get across to people a certain way and tell them how to do something,” Blair explained, “because she can do a lot of things. She has that ability to say, ‘Hey, do this that way, do it this way to be successful,’ because it’s easy to tell someone how to do something if you can do it. If you’re not so good in that category, it’s hard to step up and say do this or do that, because you can’t do it yourself. She brings every category to our team up. So much knowledge.”
Of course, her biggest contribution – outside of the intangible qualities of competitiveness and heart – is defense. Makes sense, as that’s a place where those qualities tend to show up. Tenacity doesn’t make three-pointers go in the basket, but it quickly results in steals, blocks and frustrated opposition on the defensive end.
It’s why Schaefer puts Dillingham on the other team’s best player every game. He wants his best on their best, and Dillingham has a habit of winning those battles.
“There’s not a tougher competitor in my mind than Dominique Dillingham,” he said. “If she’s not defensive player of the year in our league, I don’t know who is.”
On a top-15 team with record-breakers, high school All-Americans, scoring leaders and SEC stars, Dillingham is the quiet glue that holds them together. In a league with the tallest, longest, quickest and most athletic players, Dillingham is none of the above.
But none of that means she isn’t one of the best. Her competitiveness has made sure of that.
“I want to make my family proud,” Dillingham said. “I just try to be good at everything I am.”