MSU women’s basketball has had some remarkable players in its program history. The likes of Kristin Haynie, Jasmine Hines, Liz Shimek, Syreeta Bromfield and, most recently, Aerial Powers dominated the court. For her senior season, Tori Jankoska has been completely in the spotlight, leading the Spartans on the court and breaking records while preparing to leave a legacy behind. From fighting for her life at birth to fighting on the court as a Spartan, Jankoska has had a rollercoaster ride worth of experiences, but right now it seems she’s at the top and not coming down any time soon.
A start in basketball
At birth, Jankoska had a hole in her heart. Head coach Suzy Merchant and Tori’s mother, Lisa Jankoska, said they thought that was the stem of her competitive and fighting nature. Born in September, Lisa wanted to hold Tori back in school because of fear she wouldn’t be ready academically, but she said her teachers spoke highly of her toughness and desire to move forward.
Her mom saw something special in her when it came to basketball at the age of four or five, and it was a talent beyond her years.
“As a parent we all can’t wait for our kids to take that next step,” Lisa said. “Because we want to see them walk, we want to see them talk, want to see if they can actually make the basket. When they start in kindergarten they shoot baskets this high, then they start doing them higher. I had to take her out of our area because they don’t let them play basketball until second grade in Freeland. So I had to take her somewhere else, and then they wanted her on the fourth grade team. So she played with fourth graders in kindergarten.”
It seemed like being a Spartan was always in the cards at a young age for Jankoska. When she was about eight or nine, her mom signed her up for the MSU women’s basketball camp where Joanne McCallie was the head coach of the women’s program. McCallie told Lisa if Tori couldn’t keep up, she would have to go home.
“They ended up saying, ‘We’ll let her try, but you have to come and you have to stay for the day. If at any point she can’t keep up with the girls, then you’ll have to take her home,’” Lisa said. “Well, as you can see she did just fine, and back then she was so small. She had couple of pictures of the girls carrying her around on their shoulders — she would go through their legs dribbling.”
Beginning at MSU
When it came to becoming a part of MSU, Jankoska didn’t realize what Merchant offered her at first. She went home that day with her mom, and when her mom explained to her that Merchant was offering her a scholarship and a chance to play for her, Jankoska wanted to turn the car around and commit right then.
However, because of NCAA recruiting regulations, she couldn’t speak to Merchant for two months. When Jankoska and her mom returned to Merchant’s office, it took 20 minutes of small talk for her to say that she wanted to be a Spartan, completely out of nerves.
Getting adjusted to NCAA Division I basketball as a freshman wasn’t an easy task for Jankoska. There were times during her first year where her goal would be to be on the court for 10 minutes and to affect the game positively in such little time. Merchant said she saw a complete change in Jankoska within her four years of coaching her.
“I think she’s made herself into more of a complete player, her work ethic was always there,” Merchant said. “I think when you get to this level as a freshman, you’ve got to have to figure out what your weaknesses are and work on them. For Tori, she was that prolific 3-point shooter and really between her freshman year and now the kid can hit pull-ups, get to the rim, play make, we post her. She’s become a complete offensive threat and weapon for us and she’s done it through a lot of hard work on her own.”
A leader on the team
On and off the court, Jankoska is a leader and mentor to the rest of the team. Merchant said people have a great deal of respect for her because of how she approaches the game and the work ethic she has.
Jankoska said some of her favorite parts about being a leader are having people lean on her and using her own experiences to help her teammates through things they’re going through.
“She’s the best leader by example, I mean when she’s playing hard which is all the time, when she’s really competitive and getting after it, it feeds off on our whole team,” freshman guard Taryn McCutcheon said. “It’s just really contagious, her fire and her spark that she brings every game.”
The basketball mentorship between McCutcheon and Jankoska is palpable. From the moment McCutcheon stepped on the practice gym, McCutcheon said Jankoska went out of her way to help her learn and adapt more quickly.
“She knew that we were going to be playing together a lot and that we needed good chemistry ,and it came easily,” McCutcheon said. “It came a lot because of how she took me and just helped adapt to the game faster. She knows because she went through the same struggles, like she was in my position the last couple years. So, she knew when I was getting frustrated what was wrong. She knows me, so she just knew what to say all the time.”
Jankoska is one of the most decorated MSU women’s basketball players in program history. She is the first player to reach more than 2,000 points after MSU’s game against Maryland. She currently has 2,098 points with one more Big Ten regular season game, the Big Ten Tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament left to play.
Being the first to achieve more than 2,000 points, she is the all-time leading scorer for the Spartans, surpassing Powers after her record-breaking night against Ohio State University. In that she also broke the most points scored in a single game record for MSU. Jankoska scored 42 points against the Buckeyes.
“At the end of the day, how she affects the game is more significant than any guard,” Merchant said. “Tori to me, rebounds, defends, leads, gets steals, blocks shots, pushes the ball, plays multiple decision and... just it doesn’t end with just scoring points. And I think that is a pretty big thing that separates her.”
One of the all-time leading scorers’ most recent accomplishments is the third triple-double in program history and the first since Haynie in 2005 with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Minnesota. She also broke the most career 3-pointers made this season with 297. Jankoska also has the most 3-pointers in a single game record.
Her list of accomplishments in the basketball program seem endless as a three-time All-Big Ten, two-time Academic All-Big Ten and 2014 Big Ten Champion. She also has the career made free-throw record with 444 and a successful free throw percentage this season of 90.1 percent.
In her four years Jankoska has averaged 33.5 minutes per game, while currently in the 2016-17 season she averages 36.1 minutes. Jankoska also leads with the highest average of points per game with 22.5. She averages 8.2 rebounds per game and she’s had 148 assists this year, 474 total in her career. Out of all the things Jankoska has accomplished, she said being a Spartan is at the top of the list.
“Might sound cliché, but honestly just playing every day being able to put on a Spartan uniform and play in front of the 6,000 people that usually are here,” Jankoska said. “It really is a dream come true, it’s something I’ve wanted to do, been working to do for a long time to be able to say I did it and I played four years here and I had a really special experience.”
With post-season play approaching and the relationship Jankoska and Merchant have, she said she is sad that she won’t be able to play for Merchant much longer.
“Being able to play in front of my family, being able to play in front of these fans, these fans are amazing, some of the best in the country,” Jankoska said. “Being a part of the Spartan family, there’s so many different sports, everybody is so close and then obviously the college experience. It’s been a dream come true to be able to be here, playing here and then just experiencing college.”
After MSU basketball, Jankoska plans to take her talents to the WNBA. She doesn’t know where yet, but she wants to see where the league will take her. Jankoska’s time is quickly coming to an end not only at Breslin, but in East Lansing.
With her awaiting departure, Merchant said Jankoska’s legacy is being the poster child for a true Spartan.
“When I think about Tori’s legacy I think of the so many of the fans, and young girls and lives she’s touched off the court,” Merchant said. “I think they have a true admiration and respect for someone who has really taken the blue collar approach to their craft. If there was ever someone that you looked at and said, ‘What is a Spartan?’ Tough, hard-nosed, hard working, passionate, gets the most out of everything. I think her legacy will be how she was admired for the way she approached the game, how she carried herself off the court with young girls and young people.”