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The NBA, college basketball, and Magic Johnson are all impressed by South Carolina’s freshman sensation

Let’s begin with the play, because what else initially comes to mind when thinking of South Carolina star freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley? You know the one. Against No. 10 Notre Dame, in the season opener, in Paris. Fulwiley receives an inbounds pass with just over two minutes to go until halftime and begins galloping up the floor. By the time she reaches the 3-point line, three defenders are inside the arc, but nothing is stopping her. Fulwiley picks up her dribble, goes behind the back with the ball and elevates. For a brief second, it looks as if she will attempt a scoop layup on the basket’s right side. But then, in an instant, she cradles the ball to the left and uses her right hand to flip it up with the perfect amount of spin so it falls through the hoop. “The Eiffel Tower is shaking,” ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco says on the broadcast.
MILAYSIA FULWILEY 👀 The handles + the finish… 🎥 @GamecockWBB pic.twitter.com/cpWoj7M4ed — The Athletic (@TheAthletic) November 6, 2023
The razzle-dazzle electrifies the 3,200 spectators in attendance and hundreds of thousands watching on TV. Kevin Durant, amazed by the string of moves, tweets about it. Magic Johnson tweets it’s “the best move in all of basketball including the pros like LeBron, Steph, KD, Victor, and Jokic” and urges his 5 million followers to seek out the replay. It’s undeniably eye-popping. But to those who know Fulwiley best, the sequence isn’t surprising. I’m watching the women’s basketball game between South Carolina and Notre Dame right now and I just saw the best move in all of basketball including the pros like LeBron, Steph, KD, Victor, and Jokic. Everyone must see the coast-to-coast, behind-the-back move by freshman guard… — Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 6, 2023
“That play is routine for her,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says.
“That play, we’ve seen it 1,000 times,” her high school coach, Reggie McLain, says.
“She’s just special. I have not seen a kid play the game the way she plays it,” adds Ashley Rivens, her grassroots coach at Team Curry.

Although she’s only a freshman, Fulwiley has been making on-court magic in Columbia, S.C., for as long as she can remember. She grew up a 13-minute drive from the university’s campus. Long before she made Colonial Life Arena her stage, she created, and re-created, highlights in the driveway of her family’s three-bedroom home and at nearby Crane Forest Park. She’d watch YouTube videos — often of LeBron James, Columbia native Seventh Woods or other mixtape stars — grab a ball and experiment for herself. She’d tell her sisters, Zyana and Jayla, to sit on the porch and count down from five. “One day, the camera is gonna be on me and I’m gonna be like everybody else I see on YouTube,” Fulwiley says she would think to herself.

In daylight and darkness, on a strip of concrete or surrounding grass, in front of the house or at the goal in the back, she imagined nailing buzzer-beaters. She played in the park until she could no longer see the hoop. She practiced crossover combinations and spin moves. Eventually, in high school, the 5-foot-10 guard worked on dunking. (Yes, she can throw it down.) “You are gonna be somebody special,” her mother, Phea Mixon, told her.

Fulwiley’s highlights are a reminder, however, that just because something is routine for one person doesn’t mean it’s replicable for others. By the end of her seventh-grade season, McLain invited Fulwiley to join W.J. Keenan High’s varsity playoff run. South Carolina and Ole Miss offered her scholarships before the school year ended. As an eighth-grader, she played high school varsity full-time. Keenan won four state titles and played in five championship games with her on the roster.

Immense talent hasn’t led to immense ego, say those who know her best. Mixon describes her daughter as humble. Staley calls Fulwiley low-key and sometimes shy. “We have to teach her that you’re not an ordinary young person,” Staley says. Fulwiley, 18, knows she has much to learn. And though she’s comfortable skying above defenders, she reminds herself to stay steady. To remain grounded, even when her aerial acrobatics go viral. “I’m in control of how I want to feel,” she says. “My mom did a great job telling me, ‘Don’t get the big head because you can lose everything just how you got it.’”

As Fulwiley surged up ranking lists — eventually making her way to No. 13 in ESPN’s Class of 2023 — and past her defenders, Mixon often put her daughter’s opportunities over her own career in customer service. She prioritized attending Fulwiley’s tournaments and college visits. “I really wanted MiLaysia to secure her future, because once I saw how special she was, I knew that things can change,” Mixon says. Through hard work, she told her daughter, Fulwiley could accomplish what she aspired to achieve .

Fulwiley noticed her mother’s efforts. “It means a lot to me,” she says, “just knowing that my mom cares about me enough to stop things that’s going on in her life (and) sacrifice.” Mixon can count on one hand the number of times she’s missed Fulwiley’s games in high school or college.

Though she’s competitive off the court — McLain says Fulwiley didn’t even like to lose in PE kickball — she has largely maintained a singular focus. “Basketball has been my one and only love,” she says. In elementary school, her answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” questions was always a professional basketball player. She stood out in youth events. Fulwiley recalls attempting a 3-pointer in a boys’ church league game when she was only 6 or 7 and wondering if she was dreaming because she had tried a shot that even she thought was audacious. In the sixth grade, she scored 60 points in a game, but her team lost 71-70. She now calls her 60-piece “a waste” because of the result. Nevertheless, it brought more attention to her. In her final home game at W.J. Keenan, senior Milaysia Fulwiley went out in style as the Raiders rolled into the third round of the 2A playoffs. Fulwiley goes over the 3,000 point mark for her career and at halftime, she received some special gear.@MilaysiaF @wjkeenanraiders pic.twitter.com/nEOVX0OMJg — Reggie Anderson (@ReggieWLTX) February 18, 2023

When McLain first watched Fulwiley play, as a seventh-grader, he saw a player who stood out among her peers. He observed her elite athleticism, prodigious basketball IQ and competitiveness. A motor Fulwiley describes as “go-go-go.” That spring, McLain added her to the high school’s playoff roster, and she immediately dominated practices, taking over in one-on-one drills. Still, McLain adds, she was “extremely quiet.” She didn’t get fazed by the teachers, trainers and other coaches poking their heads in the gym to see her play.

Staley says the success of her program is “based on the kids in our area.” A’ja Wilson is from Columbia. Alaina Coates is from a nearby suburb. “No one leaves the state,” Staley says, “without them making it really hard for us to say no.” The Gamecocks made it hard for Fulwiley to say no.

As she flourished in high school and on her grassroots team, her family kept envisioning her wearing garnet and black. It was initially only a lofty aspiration, but one they hoped could be a key step to reaching the WNBA. Mixon says Staley promised to hold Fulwiley accountable and help her reach the next level. The idea of staying home in Columbia also brought added excitement because her friends and family could easily see her play. Fulwiley’s now-deceased grandfather, Charles, was a longtime Gamecocks fan. He wore the school’s apparel and had school stickers on his car. He told Fulwiley he could see her suiting up there one day. She wears No. 12 in his honor; it was his favorite number.

One morning during Fulwiley’s second week of summer classes at South Carolina, she arrived late for a team breakfast. She says she was only two minutes behind schedule. She thought nothing would come of it. But tardiness in college, she quickly learned, was different from being late in high school. Staley told her she would sit out of a practice. The discipline resonated. “Stuff like that made me lock in,” Fulwiley says. She told her mother: “Dawn does not play.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Staley has continued emphasizing the team…

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