MiLaysia Fulwiley grew up watching South Carolina basketball. Now she’s growing with it

When MiLaysia Fulwiley was 3 going on 4 years old, her mom got her a Little Tikes hoop for Christmas.

Basketballs. Tennis balls. Even bubble gum balls. If it was round, she stuffed it through that nylon net.

Fulwiley soon graduated to a larger hoop, which her mom Phelliccia Mixon set up outside next to the carport at their home in Columbia. For years visitors of the Mixon-Fulwiley household knew they couldn’t park in the driveway. That was Fulwiley’s home court.

She went to school, came home, swapped out her kicks for some basketball shoes and spent hours imitating highlights of such WNBA stars as point guard Sue Bird, South Carolina’s beloved A’ja Wilson and USF hall of fame guard Courtney Williams. Fulwiley’s younger sister Jayla stood outside with her and counted down from three like a shot clock.

“Three,” Jayla said. Fulwiley dribbled the ball.

“Two.” Dribble.

“One.” Spin move. Dribble. Shot attempt.

“Zero.” Thud (that’s the sound of the basketball hitting the backboard). Swish (that’s the ball landing in the hoop).

Now a freshman with No. 1 South Carolina, Fulwiley has captured the basketball world’s attention with dazzling spin moves, up-and-under layups and behind-the-back passes (fakeouts, too). She spent years studying highlights and perfecting each trick. First in the driveway, then at Crane Forest Park, W.J. Keenan High School and now in college with the Gamecocks.

Columbia is where Fulwiley was born and bred to ball.

She dreamed of playing for the hometown team on which she’s shined this season. Lost in the glitz and glamour of her offense is the growth she’s achieved just seven games into her collegiate career. Fulwiley played just three minutes (compared to her 23.5 average) in the team’s gritty 65-58 win Thursday over No. 24 UNC because she kept losing her man on defense, coach Dawn Staley said.

But Sunday against Duke, Fulwiley finished the game for South Carolina, punctuating her impressive performance with a kickout to guard Bree Hall for a 3-pointer to secure the 77-61 win.

“She defended, she scored, and that is the kind of play we need from her every single time,” Staley said Sunday. “I’m super proud that she was able to come back and make the adjustments. Really good players can make adjustments. They can get mad, they can cry, they can do all those things.

“But when it’s time to lock up, they make the adjustments. And I’m proud of MiLaysia tonight.”

Teammate Chloe Kitts said she thought Fulwiley grew the most of any Gamecock over the course of their ACC campaign.

“She’s young,” Kitts said, speaking on Fulwiley’s maturation on South Carolina’s Tobacco Road trip this week. “She not used to this yet. It takes a while to get comfortable.

“... UNC game, she didn’t get that much minutes, but she came in here towards the end of the game, had some great passes, had some great takes. She looked very confident here. And she was in because her defense has been getting better day by day.”

True to her national reputation as a human-highlight reel, Fulwiley ended the first half with a second-quarter buzzer beater from the Duke logo. The ball hit the glass, the front of the rim and the glass again before falling through the net. Cameron Indoor exploded.

Fulwiley was the first player off the bench Sunday, as she often is for the Gamecocks. When she makes her way to the scorer’s table and prepares to check in, South Carolina fans vibrate with excitement. Once she steps onto the court and actually gets the ball — forget about it.

In the first quarter of Fulwiley’s home debut versus then-No. 14 Maryland, she scooped the ball off the floor in transition. As she raced down court, the cheers in Colonial Life Arena crescendoed, then reached peak volume when she laid it up, bumping into a Maryland defender as she elevated for her first bucket of the day with an and-one.

“It brought tears to my eyes knowing how long she has worked so hard,” Mixon told The State.

“I was in a daze because I just couldn’t believe I was in CLA and my daughter was on the floor. … It was a feeling I can’t even explain.”

Her basketball career started 14 years earlier and minutes down the road at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Mixon learned of a recreational basketball league there and signed 4-year-old Fulwiley up. She played with the girls for a few years before earning a spot on the boys team.

Her church league days ended when she made Keenan’s varsity team in seventh grade, which is where she impressed Staley enough to receive a scholarship offer that year.

Staley often refers to Fulwiley as a “generational talent.” The legendary point guard turned legendary coach gushed over her freshman phenom after the season opener versus then-No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris.

“It’s not hard to see that she’s a talent,” Staley said. “I mean, she’s got incredible athleticism. She’s quick. She can shoot the basketball. She’s a three-level scorer. She’s very, very unselfish.

“She’s been this way for as long as we’ve known her. I’m happy that she chose to stay home and embrace us with her talent.”

Fulwiley was soft-spoken but self assured during that press conference, unafraid of acknowledging her own greatness. After all, Staley, Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant already had.

Staley and Fulwiley have a special relationship. They built their bond on trust. Trust that Staley has Fulwiley’s best interest in mind. Trust that Fulwiley will learn from the mistakes Staley has given her freedom to commit on the court.

“It makes me feel comfortable just knowing that I got somebody like her on my side,” Fulwiley said. “If only I got somebody like her that’s just making sure I’m doing everything right.”