Dunlap emerging as conference Player of the Year candidate

The UK women’s basketball team has exceeded all preseason expectations. Therefore, it seems only fitting junior forward Victoria Dunlap has done the exact same thing.

Dunlap’s performances for No. 16 UK (21-4, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) have her flying under the radar as an SEC Player of the Year candidate.

The buzz around the league finally seems to be sinking in for Dunlap, the only player in the SEC to rank in the top five in both scoring (17.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.7 boards per game).

“I haven’t talked about it in the past. I mean, it’s kind of been going in and out of my mind, just thinking there’s a possibility that I could be (Player of the Year),” Dunlap said. “But if I do or if I don’t, it would be nice that people recognize that I can play.”

Not only does Dunlap rank in the top five in offensive statistics, such as scoring and rebounding, but she also leads the league in steals and ranks in the top five in blocked shots.

All these statistics equal one dominant post player in Dunlap, who, like her team as a whole, was not receiving much preseason praise. Both the coaches and the media did not select Dunlap as a first-team All-SEC selection.

Opponents are beginning to take notice of Dunlap, however, as 25 games into the season Dunlap has registered double figures in all but one game, tallied seven double-doubles, three SEC Player of the Week awards and has led her team in scoring and rebounding in 12 games.

Even Dunlap’s coach hadn’t quite thought of just how well she’d been playing until recently.

UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said UK’s second game against Arkansas on Feb. 7, was the lightbulb-over-the-head moment for him because Dunlap had made some plays she hadn’t before.

“(Dunlap’s) a rare combination of a person that is extremely gifted and extremely talented,” Mitchell said. “A lot of times my experience as a coach is that people will rely on that and not always push themselves as hard as they can.”

The opposite seems to be true for Dunlap, who is salivating to get a full summer to work on her game, specifically ball handling and shooting 15-footers and outside shots, she said.

Dunlap’s statistics have improved in each of her three years in Lexington, and if her past efforts are any indication, more improvement should be in store for the future. This past summer Dunlap set out to improve her free-throw shooting and leadership skills.

“It’s been vocally (leading) in practice and sometimes in the games,” said Dunlap of her role as a leader. “But it’s still mostly performance, leading through example, but vocally, I’ve emerged from my little shell.”

As for the free-throw shooting, Dunlap has transformed from a 40 percent shooter as a freshman to the 14th ranked free-throw shooter in the SEC at 68 percent.

“Good players in this league are either very talented or they work extremely hard,” Mitchell said. “The great players in this league are players that have the combination of being very talented and having a great work ethic … Victoria has a chance to be just that.”