When Jillian Alleyne was recruited out of Fontana’s Summit High in 2012, she considered the legacy she might leave at each school.
“To put the school on the map,” she said.
She just had no idea it would take seven years.
Alleyne, a Southern California prep star before becoming one of the top rebounders in NCAA women’s basketball history at Oregon, jumped and screamed around her mother’s Fontana living room Sunday as the Ducks clinched their first appearance in the women’s NCAA tournament Final Four.
Three years have passed since she last donned an Oregon uniform. Yet when her former Oregon coaches and teammates reached Tampa, Fla., where they will face Baylor in a national semifinal Friday, they said they wouldn’t have advanced this far without the contributions of Alleyne. The 6-foot-3 center, who remains third all-time in NCAA Division I history in career rebounds and second all-time in double-doubles, returned respectability to a program that had fallen in disrepair, helping the Ducks rise rapidly within a sport dominated by a small group of perennial powerhouses.
“It’s neat to see the building blocks of a program,” assistant coach Mark Campbell said. “Jill led us on that journey.”
That the journey has now reached a Final Four feels surreal for Alleyne. The Ducks won four tournament games to get here. They won four games during Alleyne’s entire freshman season, in 2013. One year after leading her high school to a CIF basketball title as a senior, she was named the Pac-12’s top freshman and ranked seventh nationally in rebounding. Yet Oregon piled up 27 losses in coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun system that was both fast and flawed. A coach from Alleyne’s club team raised the possibility of a transfer.
“My mom has always raised me that when you commit somewhere, you stick it through,” Alleyne said. “So for me it was never an option.”
When new coach Kelly Graves arrived from Gonzaga in spring 2014, he inherited a program suffering from apathy. Alleyne and Graves had met the previous summer, when Alleyne tried out for USA Basketball’s under-19 team and Graves coached the posts.
“There was a little bit of trust there,” Graves said. “She was such a leader that as she went the rest of the team followed.”
By Alleyne’s senior season, Oregon was one of the NCAA tournament’s bubble teams late into the season with Alleyne en route to earning co-conference player of the year honors. Her career ended before she had a chance to play in the tournament. Alleyne tore the ACL in a knee during a late February practice.
“Crushing is not the word,” said Pamela Williamson, Alleyne’s mother. “It was devastating — capital letters all the way through and exclamation mark. That’s how terrible it was. I was shocked.”
Alleyne now sees the silver lining from the season. Postseason experience from playing in the NIT benefited a freshman class whose point guard, Maite Cazorla, and forward, Oti Gildon, have since won two Pac-12 titles and advanced to at least the round of eight in three consecutive NCAA tournaments.
“Learning from Jillian and seeing what she went through during her time there, and us cranking out a lot of wins was amazing,” Gildon said.
The turnaround in Graves’ second season caught the attention of recruits such as Sabrina Ionescu, the country’s top high school player, who arrived in 2017 as part of the country’s third-ranked recruiting class. Ionescu has since been named Pac-12 player of the year twice and could be the top pick in next month’s WNBA draft should she forgo her senior season. Another member of the class, Ruthy Hebard, has earned All-American honors.
“[Alleyne] allowed us to lay a foundation and to have enough success in our early years to land a Maite and Oti, and that snowballs into landing Sabrina and a Ruthy, and that snowballs into landing Satou [Sabally],” Campbell said.
Alleyne hopes she is close to completing her own turnaround.
She was selected by Phoenix in the 2016 WNBA draft but her ACL rehab took twice as long as projected. She returned to playing in 2017 in Spain. After attending training camps with the WNBA’s New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx last summer, she averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds with Israel’s Rishon Le-Zion this winter and felt stronger than she had at Oregon. She will attend training camp with Minnesota again next month.
Since returning from Israel in mid-March, Alleyne has continued her training in Fontana, where she will watch Friday’s semifinal with her mother.
She didn’t cry when Oregon advanced to the Final Four but came close to it.
“I wanted my team to be that team that took Oregon to the NCAA tournament,” Alleyne said. “I also found peace in understanding it’s OK to lay the seed and let the next team benefit from that. … To see it happen sooner rather than later was a big deal for me. I didn’t cry but I was pretty close to it. Seeing their happiness and joy was like, ‘OK, they’ve made it.’ ”