EAST LAKE — Dionte Blanch rubbed elbows with some of Murray State basketball’s all-time greats, such as Popeye Jones, during an official visit last year. But the East Lake High point guard never got to meet the most famous Racer, the one who guided the program on a memorable run through last season’s NCAA Tournament.
“I’m sure I’ll be able to talk to (Ja Morant) soon,” Blanch said.
Fans certainly want that to happen. Since signing with Murray State in November, Blanch has received all sorts of social media messages from the school’s die-hards. They constantly marvel at how much the Eagles senior reminds them of Morant, now in his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies.
On the court, it’s hard to tell the two apart.
For two seasons, Morant dazzled the Racer faithful. He measured defenders and calculated angles, considering his options at warp speed until he determined the right instant to present a teammate with the ball and, more often than not, the best chance for a bucket. When needed, Morant became a flashy, take-it-to-hole scorer. Most of all, he led Murray State to basketball prominence with consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament to help gain a legion of followers.
The 6-foot-3 Blanch displays all of the same capabilities. The blind passes. The corkscrew maneuvers around the basketball. The long-range 3-pointers. And the ability to put a team’s title aspirations squarely on his shoulders.
On Thursday, Blanch leads East Lake (26-3) in its first state semifinal appearance. By doing so, he gained a huge amount of fan support. Some Eagles devotees even sport Murray State jerseys with Blanch’s name on the back.
“I think Dionte kind of modeled his game after Ja,” East Lake coach Britt Taylor said. “Their games are very similar. That’s why he wanted to go to Murray State.”
As a freshman at East Lake, Blanch was a two-sport star. He played football, in part to stay connected with his older brother, Tupac, a senior at the time. Blanch made an immediate impact on the gridiron, finishing with 19 tackles and averaging 43 yards per kickoff return.
Juggling football and basketball became too much. So Blanch chose basketball.
Still, that did not stop college football programs from recruiting him. Letters from Clemson, Syracuse and other big-time schools kept piling up even after Blanch quit playing football. Blanch has more than 100 of those letters stuffed in a shoebox at home.
“I still get calls from colleges asking about Dionte because they remember him from a football camp years ago,” East Lake football coach Bob Hudson said. “I have to tell them he stopped playing as a freshman. If Dionte kept playing, he would have been one of the top defensive backs in the country. He was that good.”
At first, Blanch had to question the decision. As a sophomore, he struggled to grasp Taylor’s offense, which relieves heavily on the point guard. “I just felt like I couldn’t get anything right,” Blanch said.
It started to click at the end. In the season finale, Blanch had 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Then came another difficult decision.
In the summer of 2018, Blanch announced that he would be attending Superior Collegiate. He never enrolled. A day later, Blanch was back at East Lake.
“I just asked the family to take a long hard look at that school before making any long-term decision,” Taylor said. “That’s all it took. And it was big for Dionte to say he made a mistake. I was more than willing to welcome him back. I was really looking out for his future the whole time.”
Back together, Taylor gave Blanch a basketball and a team to run.
Blanch delivered, guiding the Eagles to the region finals for the first time last season and now a state final four berth.
On Thursday, fans will fill Lakeland’s RP Funding Center, most clad in blue, a few wearing Murray State gear. They will all be there for East Lake’s state semifinal matchup against Bartow (28-1). Another dazzling performance, another win, would put the team Blanch (24.2 points per game) carried all season on the verge of a title.
Four months later, Blanch will be at Murray State, this time to follow the point guard legacy created by Morant.
“I’ll be on campus and enroll in classes a few days after I graduate from high school,” Blanch said. “I have a chance to compete for the starting point job right away. I can’t waste time. I have to get up there as quick as possible. There’s a lot of work to do.”
State boys basketball semifinals
At RP Funding Center, Lakeland; admission $13, parking $10
2A: Bayshore Christian vs. Orlando Christian Prep, noon Wednesday
4A: Lake Highland Prep vs. Tampa Catholic, noon Thursday
6A: East Lake vs. Bartow, 8 p.m. Thursday