Archdeacon: ‘Born into the game’ -- UD freshman Blakney follows in the footsteps of his mom

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R.J. Blakney interview (Dec. 8, 2020)

Dafne Blakney was a standout player at Maryland and successful high school, junior college coach in Baltimore area

Tuesday night was not the first time R.J. Blakney, the Dayton Flyers’ 6-foot-5 freshman, came off the bench and caught everyone’s attention.

Back when was a little boy just strong enough to hoist the ball up to the rim, he would slip from the sidelines onto the court and really put on a show.

After a stellar college career at Maryland and several seasons playing pro ball in Europe, his mom -- Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney – became a successful high school and junior college coach in the Baltimore area.

“R.J. was born into the game,” Dafne said. “I had him when I was coaching and right from the start he was attached to me out there on the court.”

As she guided her team, he was nestled in an infant carrier she wore strapped over her shoulders. When he got a little bigger, some of the players on the bench took turns tending to him.

“They’d hold him,” Dafne said. “To him the girls were like his big sisters.”

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RJ Blakney (bottom row left) looks up at mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, coach of Coppin Academy High in Baltimore (top row left). CONTRIBUTED

RJ Blakney (bottom row left) looks up at mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, coach of Coppin Academy High in Baltimore (top row left). CONTRIBUTED

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RJ Blakney (bottom row left) looks up at mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, coach of Coppin Academy High in Baltimore (top row left). CONTRIBUTED

Eventually he rode the bench just like the other subs.

“He just kind of fell into place like he was part of the team,” Dafne said. “And that’s why now, when some of those girls see him grown and playing himself, they cry. They get very emotional seeing what he’s become.”

R.J. remembers those old times well.

“There were some rules,” he laughed. “I couldn’t be playing around and talking and distracting the players…especially during time outs when my mom was talking.”

Dafne chuckled about those days, as well:

“His time was halftime. I’d tell him ‘Go get a ball and you can go out and do what you need to do.’”

As the teams left for the dressing rooms, he ran onto the court and shot around. Sometimes the crowd urged him on.

“He knew when halftime ended, he needed to be back to his spot on the bench,” Dafne said. “But sometimes when he was really trying to make a shot, the referees would give him some extra time. They were really good to him.

“And when he did make it, he’d come running off the court and he’d be smiling. He was so pleased with himself.”

Tuesday night against Northern Kentucky at UD Arena, he went out and again did what he needed to do.

With 3:56 left in the first half, he hit a jump shot just outside the paint to tie the score 27-27.

The Flyers then slipped behind by five points and again he helped lead them back. When Jalen Crutcher missed a driving layup with 91 seconds left, he tipped the ball in to cut the Norse lead to 32-31.

And just 23 seconds later he drew a charging foul that got the ball back for the UD and enabled Crutcher to hit a three-pointer to put the Flyers in the lead for good.

He was on the court for the final stretch of the Flyers 66-60 victory, as well -- the only sub to get such a nod – and ended up playing just over 21 minutes in the game and scoring six points. He had two rebounds, a steal, an assist, a blocked shot and no turnovers on a night when the rest of the team committed 22.

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Dayton's R.J. Blakney shoots against Eastern Illinois on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Dayton's R.J. Blakney shoots against Eastern Illinois on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

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Dayton's R.J. Blakney shoots against Eastern Illinois on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

He is the only true freshman to have played so far in the Flyers’ 2-1 season and the only player off the bench to have made a significant contribution in the first three games.

“He stepped up great,” said junior forward Chase Johnson, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “We really liked his energy off the bench.”

Coach Anthony Grant singled Blakney out as well afterward:

“I thought we got some really, really good minutes out of R.J. Blakney off the bench. He came in, provided energy and played with confidence. He played with a real competitive spirit. It was good to see and much needed, especially in game as highly contested and physical as this one.

“As he begins to get more confidence with our system, our language and what we do on both ends of the ball, I think he can be the guy who grows into a role for us.”

Mom passes on competitiveness, love of the game

As Dafne was back home watching the game with her mother, Marie Lee, who’s originally from Haiti, she saw some traits that she and her son share on the court

“I see some of the same competitiveness and I know he has a love of the game, too,” she said.

After starring at Walbrook High School in Baltimore, she became a stalwart on some strong Maryland teams from 1988-92.

While she was there, the Terrapins advanced at least to the Sweet 16 the NCAA Tournament each year. In 1989 they made the Final Four and in 1992, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation for a month.

She ended her career with 992 points and remains in the top 15 in several career performance categories.

After a pro career that took her to Switzerland, Belgium, Israel and Greece, she returned home and began coaching.

“I got married in 1999 and had R.J. in 2000,” she said.

Between 2004 and 2006, she led the Southside High girls team to three state finals and won the crown in 2005. She said by the time her son was 7, she was raising him on her own with help from her mom.

She took a real interest in his basketball and was at most of his games and nurtured his passion any way she could.

“I was always in the gym growing up,” he said. “I was at all the practices and games for her teams and I’d listen to her call plays and talk to players.”

He started to laugh: “When we’d play 1-on-1, she didn’t hold back. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I could hold my own with her. She was still playing in the semi-pro leagues then and she had a little step-back shot I couldn’t stop.

“She was a great college player and she had a wonderful career. I respect her. She had heart and a high IQ. And she had that dog in her and now I got some of it in me.

“I owe a lot of my basketball to her.”

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Dayton’s 6-foot-6 freshman guard R.J, Blakney and his mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, who was a college basketball star at the University of Maryland and then played professionally overseas before becoming a long-time successful basketball coach at various high schools and in junior college in the Baltimore area. CONTRIBUTED

Dayton’s 6-foot-6 freshman guard R.J, Blakney and his mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, who was a college basketball star at the University of Maryland and then played professionally overseas before becoming a long-time successful basketball coach at various high schools and in junior college in the Baltimore area.  CONTRIBUTED

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Dayton’s 6-foot-6 freshman guard R.J, Blakney and his mom, Dwuana “Dafne” Lee Blakney, who was a college basketball star at the University of Maryland and then played professionally overseas before becoming a long-time successful basketball coach at various high schools and in junior college in the Baltimore area. CONTRIBUTED

‘Smile a little more’

Blakney scored over 1,800 points at St. Maria Goretti High in Hagerstown, Md., and then spent a year at Loomis Chaffee, a prep school in Windsor, Conn., where he averaged 20.3 points a game.

Before the season he caught the eye of UD assistant coach Ricardo Greer, who soon brought Grant to see him play.

Blakney took a recruiting visit to UD with his mom and said he was impressed by the coaches and the culture of the program. Once he got back home, he decided he wanted to come to UD. He committed in October and signed a scholarship offer a month later.

When this season turned topsy-turvy by the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic finally tipped off against Eastern Illinois 10 days ago, his debut consisted of six minutes of play and two points. Four days later, he played two minutes and didn’t score in a two-point loss to Southern Methodist.

So Tuesday night was his real coming out party.

Afterward he said he’d talk to his mom:

“She not a typical mom saying ‘Oooh, great game!’ With her, it’s you need to do this better or you need to work on that. She’ll tell me to stay poised and talk to my teammates and she’ll say ‘Smile a little more,’ ‘cause I usually don’t smile a lot out there.”

But Tuesday was different.

It was like those days when he was a little boy giving people something to watch out there on the court.

And like then, when he finally came off the court, he was smiling.

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