Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A lifelong love of basketball prepares guard Cierra Dillard for prominent role for Minutewomen

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(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

It didn’t take long for Massachusetts women’s basketball sophomore guard Cierra Dillard to develop a love for the sport.

The youngest of five children, with three older brothers who all played basketball, Dillard became obsessed with the game at a very young age.

“There’s a picture of me holding my brother’s basketball at age three,” Dillard said. “All three of my brothers had been playing basketball before I was even out of the womb, so I was introduced to sports when I was very young. I like to say I fell in love with the sport right out of the womb.”

Once Dillard got into organized ball at the age of seven, there was no looking back for the fiery guard. She had found her calling and there was nothing that would get in her way of success.

Dillard claims she believed and was told she could play at the collegiate level when she was just in seventh grade. From there, it was all about keeping her head on straight to reach that goal.

“I was always one of the youngest players on the team on every team I was on,” Dillard said. “A lot of people took me under their wing, including my brothers, and let me know that if I stayed focused and kept driving, I could play at the collegiate level. I was always told at a young age to stay on the right path and you can get into college and have everything paid for.”

For Dillard, family and friends have always been the biggest rock in her life. Her mom is a single mother who raised her and her siblings by herself. The hard work her mother put into raising the family is something Dillard doesn’t overlook.

“She always instilled in us to work very hard for what we wanted,” Dillard said. “She worked so hard to get us where we are now. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to go those AAU tournaments, go to a good high school and have a good college future. She instilled great morals and values in me on and off the court.”

When it came to college, it was clear early on that UMass was the place she wanted to be. Dillard said the University would always follow her while she was on AAU trips and showed an interest in her throughout the process.

Off the court, Dillard, a communications major, fell in love with the school as well.

“When I came to visit I fell in love with the atmosphere,” she said. “I remember my principal telling me that if I could take basketball out of the equation, would I still want to go here? I did that and took the program out of the equation real quick, and I fell in love with the academics and the location. I knew it was the place for me.”

Time to shine

The Minutewomen are coming off a 12-18 (5-11 Atlantic 10) season. For most teams, that would be considered a failure, but for last year’s group, it represented a positive step for a program that hadn’t seen 10 wins since the 2009-10 season.

But with last year’s step forward, it also lost a key cog in forward Kim Pierre-Louis, who graduated last spring.

Pierre-Louis led the team in scoring with 18.4 points per game and was second on the team in rebounding with 7.5 per game. She finished her career with 1,099 points.

Dillard recognizes the enormity of the loss.

“She was an incredible player and teammate,” Dillard said. “She was so well-gifted and talented all around. That will definitely be a big role to fill this season.”

With Pierre-Louis gone, the Minutewomen will look to Dillard to be one of their offensive leaders this year.

In her freshman year, Dillard recorded 319 points while starting all 30 games. She finished second on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game.

Coach Sharon Dawley is confident that Dillard can fill the scoring load from Pierre-Louis lost from last season.

“She’s got a lot of confidence on offense and she is very hard to defend,” Dawley said. “She’s able to get to the rim against almost anybody. (Dillard) can do it all. If you take away one thing, she has a counter.”

Dawley has seen a lot of growth in Dillard over the past year.

“I think the biggest jump in a player’s game is from freshman to sophomore year and I think Cierra has grown a lot in that respect,” Dawley said. “When girls are coming right out of high school, sometimes they are more one-on-one type of players. Now, she sees more things on the floor, she sees who should get the ball when. I’ve seen a ton of growth from her in a lot of different areas.”

Sophomore guard Leah McDerment, who joined the program at the same time as Dillard, agrees with Dawley’s assessment of her teammate’s growth.

“I think originally she came in with a high school attitude, but now you can easily tell the difference in her in many different aspects,” McDerment said. “Even her personality on the court has improved. It seems like she’s having more fun nowadays and she has really come into who she is as a person.”

UMass was picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the A-10 preseason poll. It’s a spot the Minutewomen are very much used to coming off a year where they were picked to finish 14th.

Dillard said she doesn’t pay attention too much to the rankings, but believes that it will only serve as another motivating factor.

“We see that as a little slap in the face,” Dillard said. “We use that underdog status to build motivation and momentum. We’re not picked for anything, so you can’t do any worse. We’re going out there with no pressure, so we can just go play and have fun and do better than what everyone predicted.”

Adam Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @aaucoin34.

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