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The WNBA could be next for Towson’s Kionna Jeter. She had to overcome three near-death experiences to get here.

Towson's Kionna Jeter dribbles the ball during a game against Temple on Dec. 4, 2019.
Towson's Kionna Jeter dribbles the ball during a game against Temple on Dec. 4, 2019.(John.B.Crouch)

The Towson women’s basketball team is built around Kionna Jeter, and for good reason.

The 5-foot-8 redshirt junior shooting guard ranks in the top seven in the Colonial Athletic Association in points, free-throw percentage, rebounds and steals and has the Tigers (12-11, 7-5) primed to defend the league tournament championship they captured last winter for the first time in program history.

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Jeter has been so good that UNC Wilmington coach Karen Barefoot thinks Division I basketball is just a steppingstone for her.

“She’s a WNBA player,” Barefoot said Friday night after watching Jeter record a game-high 20 points and 12 rebounds to propel Towson to a 78-45 rout of her Seahawks at SECU Arena. “I just think that she’s special. It takes two to three people and maybe even four just to contain her.”

For the soft-spoken Jeter, who grew up idolizing former Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker and former Washington Mystics point guard Ivory Latta, talking about her personal success seems like a contradiction of her team-first attitude.

“It means a lot, this being my second year and doing what I can be able to do to help Towson,” she said. “Last year was a historic season for us, and it’s just a blessing to be a piece of the puzzle to help build Towson up. … I’m just doing what I know how to do and doing what I can do.”

That Jeter can contemplate a career in the WNBA is remarkable, considering that she has endured several near-death experiences.

Jeter said her family told her that she was born six weeks premature, weighing only about 3 pounds. At the age of 2, she was hit by a car backing up from a park near her hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

She suffered a broken arm and leg and a high hernia, which led to the removal of her belly button. She was in a bodycast for about eight months and had to re-learn how to walk.

Then back home, taking a break from her season at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida, to attend her uncle Quincy’s funeral, Jeter was struck Feb. 3, 2018, by two stray bullets during a drive-by shooting while sitting in the driver’s seat with her sister behind her. One bullet fractured her left shoulder blade and the other narrowly missed her spine and her heart.

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Unable to play basketball for 12 weeks, Jeter watched schools such as North Carolina, Texas, Louisville, Wichita State and Texas Tech pull their scholarship offers. It was a humbling and confusing time for her.

“It was just like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ ” she recalled. “I was really lost. I didn’t know what was next.”

Asked if she was angered by the snubs, Jeter said: “I wasn’t angry because I understood, but I was feeling, ‘OK, nobody believes in me.’ I think they were waiting to see how I would come back, but by the time I come back, I’ll already be with a program that believes in me.”

Towson's Kionna Jeter drives during a game against Northeastern on Jan. 24, 2020.
Towson's Kionna Jeter drives during a game against Northeastern on Jan. 24, 2020.

That program was Towson. Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Kancher tipped off coach Diane Richardson about Jeter’s availability, but noted that she was recovering from gunshot injuries.

“I was like, ‘She got shot? Did she shoot anybody?’” Richardson said. “He said, ‘No, it was a drive-by, and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ So I said, ‘Get her on the phone.’”

Richardson said Jeter’s upbringing reminded her of her childhood in Washington.

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“I didn’t get shot, but all of those things were around me,” Richardson said. “And I too did the same thing. I wanted to get out of that cycle, and I had a skill, and I was going to use it to get out, and I did. Basketball actually changed my life, and it’s doing the same thing for her.”

Jeter committed to the Tigers on the day that she visited the campus in the summer of 2018 because she appreciated Richardson’s candor. Months of rehabilitation were painful, but Jeter said her life journey has molded her into a better player and a better person.

“It shaped me into a tougher person with a strong mind and the capability of overcoming adversity and maintain and staying on course with life,” she said. “With me getting shot, everything could have just been gone. I could have been either dead or sitting at home or in jail. But I think it’s my strong mind and my will to be successful.”

Jeter leads the CAA in steals (3.1 per game) and ranks second in points (18.7), fifth in free-throw percentage (.825), and seventh in rebounds (7.0). Barefoot, the UNCW coach, said many people overlook Jeter’s defensive ability, which has helped the Tigers rank third in the league in field-goal percentage defense (.387).

“I think she’s a heck of a defender,” she said. “She’s very scrappy. She reads better than anybody. Off-ball, that’s where she can get you, tipping the ball, being a pain in the butt. She reads and anticipates very well. So that makes her a complete player.”

On Sunday, Jeter — who has been nicknamed “Melo” since she began sporting a closely-shaven head as an eighth grader that resembled former Towson Catholic forward and NBA star Carmelo Anthony — scored 19 points in Towson’s 83-72 win against the College of Charleston and surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career, reaching that plateau in less than two full seasons of Division I basketball. It’s quite a departure from last winter when Richardson had to sit Jeter down and implore her to take more shots.

“This is exactly what we anticipated,” Richardson said. “Obviously, she’s skilled. But she can see the next level, and she’s seen that she has thrived here and that she can do whatever she wants to do. We try to give them that confidence to know that you can do whatever you want to do. It’s going to take some work, but it is possible, and she’s doing that.”

The physical scars on her back are permanent. But Jeter said the obstacles she’s had to overcome have helped her see the big picture.

“I’m very fortunate, I’m very blessed,” she said. “I think I have a purpose on this earth. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be here. It’s another opportunity. Before every single game, I pray, and the first thing I say is, ‘Dear Lord, thank you for another opportunity, thank you for another day.’”

TOWSON@HOFSTRA

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