East Lansing — Jenna Allen ran down the court Sunday afternoon, arms stretched out holding up three fingers with each hand, basking in the roar that had overtaken the Breslin Center.
The Michigan State senior had just buried a 3-pointer from the wing to effectively seal the Spartans’ 88-82 victory over No. 3 Oregon, giving her a season-high 27 points and allowing Michigan State to announce to the college basketball world that it will be a team to be reckoned with in 2018-19.
“It was one of the neatest moments in coaching,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said Monday. “When you watch one of your players play so hard and play so well, it was one of those neat moments. She had tears of joy, right after the game and in the locker room. You don’t usually come to an emotion like that unless it’s pretty raw and pretty pure.
“I’ve seen some amazing performances and been part of some great wins, but if you know Jenna and the kind of person she is, your heart was as big as Breslin watching it happen. She certainly didn’t let anybody down, didn’t let herself down and she was spectacular. It was right up there as one of my top-five moments, watching her run back with her arms up. I’m really proud of what she accomplished and what the team accomplished.”
What the team accomplished was its first win over a top-five team since beating No. 5 Ohio State, 107-105, in three overtimes on Feb. 27, 2016. It was also the Spartans' biggest upset win since a 68-64 upset of No. 3 Tennessee on April 3, 2005 in the NCAA Tournament.
What the 6-foot-4 Allen accomplished was being named the Big Ten Player of the Week, as well as earning national player of the week honors from ESPNW.
Allen averaged 21.5 points on 17-of-24 shooting, including going 5-for-8 from 3-point range over two games last week. In the win over Oregon, Allen was 11-for-14 from the field, including 3-for-4 on triples while pulling down seven rebounds in a career-high 37 minutes. She scored 16 and had four rebounds earlier in the week in a victory over Oakland and is averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds this season. Allen is also shooting a career-best .579 percent from the field.
“I'm so proud of this team for everything,” Allen said after the Oregon win. “All the adversity we've gone through. Last year we didn't have the year we wanted, and we worked so hard this offseason and we're still going through adversity. … I think this means a lot and this proves we worked and how much potential this team has.”
That adversity has surrounded the injuries Michigan State (8-1) has had to deal with this season. Preseason All-Big Ten guard Shay Colley missed her fourth game Sunday because of a sprained MCL in her knee while the Spartans have had a host of other players battling injuries.
Sophomore forward Sidney Cooks was back on Sunday after missing the previous three games while sophomore forward Mardrekia Cook has battled injury problems much of the season and redshirt freshman guard Claire Hendrickson has missed four games.
“I wish we were 9-0,” Merchant joked on Monday. “But I’m pleased, especially with some of the injuries and the limited minutes, for sure.”
The fact the Spartans, who entered the Associated Press rankings this week at No. 23, have played so well despite their limitations should be a good sign moving forward.
But it’s not exactly a shock, either, that Michigan State’s only loss came by four to No. 10 NC State during the Cancun Challenge in late November. At least, it’s not to the head coach, who thought the Spartans deserved to be ranked well before this week.
“If we would have won the NC State game that was a one-possession game and it was back and forth, and it was in Cancun so not many people looked at it as much,” Merchant said. “We lose by four in that situation and they’re No. 10 in the country. I knew the way we scrimmaged (second-ranked) Notre Dame and didn’t have Sid and barely had Shay in that game and knew how we performed against them. So, I knew our team had some pieces I felt good about.”
Even with the impressive start, though, Merchant isn’t about to allow her team to rest on her laurels. That’s not how the 12th-year coach operates. Her plan is to get Michigan State back in position to compete for a Big Ten title and get back to the NCAA Tournament, a place the Spartans had been in eight of nine seasons before missing out last season.
“Hopefully you never get too high or too low in this business,” said Merchant, whose team visits Hartford (4-5) on Sunday. “I think there’s a lot of things we still have to work on, there’s no question about that. For me it’s about how much better can we be and then where are we that people can take advantage of and how can we make sure ready for those? Whether that be doubling the post, sagging off certain people on the offensive end. … We’ve seen a little bit of everything but consistently now that there’s numbers on the stat sheet people can scout you based on that.
“To me it’s really just about making sure we’re prepared for what’s ahead. But the conference is tough. We play quite a few teams ranked in the top 25 and it’s gonna be a grind. We open up with Iowa at home (on Dec. 30), which is ranked (No. 16) and they have one of the best post players in country (Megan Gustafson). So, it’s certainly gonna be a challenge right out of the gate for us.”