While at Sacramento High School, Fantasia Hilliard watched as many of her basketball teammates waded through numerous high-level scholarship offers.
The Dragons point guard wasn’t envious of her more celebrated teammates, a group that included Brittany Shine (Florida, Cal), Kyra Dunn (Pittsburgh, Cal), Erica Barnes (Arizona State) and Jasmine Ware (UC Santa Barbara).
But she believed that even if her wispy 5-foot-3 frame might be off-putting to recruiters, she was a Division I-caliber player, even if her only offer came from a Sacramento State program that at the time hadn’t had a winning season in 17 years.
Now Hilliard could boast that she’s having the most successful college career among her Sac High contemporaries.
In helping the Hornets beat Northern Colorado 74-64 on Saturday at The Nest, the junior became the school’s career assists leader.
Hilliard began the day three assists shy of the 453 career assists racked up by Heather Baker (now Heather Chapman), who played at Sac State from 1989 to 1993.
With Chapman in the stands rooting her on, Hilliard recorded her 454th assist at the 13:32 mark of the second half with a bounce pass to Margaret Huntington in the key for a layup.
Simply put, Fantasia has been fantastic for the Hornets.
“I thought it was really important to be here today,” said Chapman, who lives in Cameron Park and teaches at Will Rogers Middle School in Fair Oaks. “I’m really happy that another local player has set the record, and she’s only a junior. So I’m impressed.
“I love her hustle, how she competes against those big girls, and how she kicks it out. She’s really smart.”
Hilliard, a three-year starter for the Hornets, entered the weekend fifth in the nationin assists (7.3), and she’s averaging 13.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 26.7 minutes for a 13-4 Hornets team that has broken a number of school records while playing the entertaining and unorthodox up-tempo “System” under first-year coach Bunky Harkleroad.
Hilliard was the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year in the 2011-12 season, All-Big Sky honorable mention last season and recently was named to the Liberman Award Watch list that recognizes the top college women’s point guard in the nation.
“She’s just so darn good,” Harkleroad said. “She’s done a great job for us as far as finding her teammates and getting to the rim and drawing fouls.”
Harkleroad said Hilliard “played incredible” Thursday in leading the Hornets to a 110-104 upset over Big Sky leader North Dakota. She had a team-high 22 points and 11 assists in the highest-scoring game in Sac State and Big Sky history.
Despite her lack of height, Hilliard presses, traps, rebounds and shoots over players much taller.
“Fantasia is tough,” Harkleroad said. “What she lacks in size, she makes up for with quickness.”
Hilliard often is paired in the backcourt with Alle Moreno, another mighty mite at 5-4.
When Hilliard joined the Hornets, Moreno knew she had someone who mirrored her oversized intensity on the court and matched her quirky personality off it. They have played with or against each other since elementary school.
“She’s the best personality I’ve ever been around,” said Moreno, a graduate of St. Mary’s High School in Stockton. “She’s goofy, she’s funny, she’s a smart aleck. But she knows how to turn it on when game time comes around. She can shoot it, she can pass it, and she’s got unbelievable dribbling skills.”
With an older sister, three brothers and a slew of male cousins, Hilliard grew up with a ball in her hands and plenty of competition. She wanted to follow in the cleats of older brother Bryan, a standout running back at Laguna Creek High School and Sac State.
She pleaded so much when she was 7 that dad Bryan Sr. signed her up for a youth tackle football team. But Lennifer, Fantasia’s mother, caught wind and nixed the idea. She did cheerleading instead.
“I was a tomboy,” Hilliard said. “I loved being active and beating up on the boys and playing Power Rangers.”
As a senior at Sac High, Hilliard led the 28-6 Dragons in assists (5.3) and was second in scoring (12.3).
She signed her letter of intent with then-coach Jamie Craighead and Sac State, which was 6-25 that season.
“That was my only offer, but it ended up working out for the best,” Hilliard said. “With some of the other schools, it was always a ‘but’ in the recruiting process, and I knew it was my height. JC really wanted me and believed in me, and I saw it as a chance to help re-establish Sac State as a good program.”
Now she has the Hornets on pace to match or surpass last season’s total of 19 wins, the Hornets’ most since going 19-7 in 1990-91, when Chapman was a junior and the Hornets were producing winning teams with regularity.
“We were pretty good,” said Chapman, who played at Colfax High School. “My junior year we led the nation in rebounding, and my senior year, (teammate) Kristy Ryan led the nation in scoring.
“Sac State hit a dry spell for a while, so it’s neat to see what’s happening now. They’re really exciting to watch.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.