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Basketball fans can once again root for Kansas women's teams in their March Madness brackets

A woman basketball player wearing a purple Kansas State jersey shoots the ball past the outstretched arms of a player in orange and white from the University of Texas.
Scott D. Weaver
Big 12 Conference
Ayoka Lee (foreground) in Kansas State University's game against Texas during the Big 12 Women's Basketball Championship at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 11, 2022.

K-State and KU women are going to the NCAA tournament, and Mizzou almost made it. Future tournaments look even more hopeful thanks to "a lot of talent" at high schools across the Midwest.

Women’s college basketball players in Kansas and Missouri made history this season.

In January, Ayoka Lee, a 6-foot-6 center at Kansas State University, scored 61 points in a game against Oklahoma. It was the most points ever scored by an NCAA Division I women’s basketball player. Oklahoma was ranked No. 14 in the country at the time, but unranked K-State beat them 94-65.

And in Missouri, for the first time in Mizzou women’s basketball history, the Tigers beat a No. 1 ranked team. On Dec. 30, with only eight players able to suit up due to COVID-19, the Tigers beat top-ranked South Carolina, 70-69 in overtime.

The victory raised hopes for an NCAA tournament run. In a news conference after that game, Tigers coach Robin Pingeton made a foreboding remark.

“Our mission was never about beating South Carolina,” Pingeton said. “It’s about being in that NCAA tournament in March.”

Six losses in their last eight games cost the Tigers their chance. But like K-State – and even the Kansas Jayhawks, who are going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 – there are reasons to be optimistic about women’s basketball around the Kansas City area.

“It’s crazy,” Lee said after setting that scoring record against Oklahoma. “Coming into this game, I don’t think anyone thinks, “Oh yeah, we’re going to set a record today.”

But soon it was Lee’s face lighting up electronic billboards around town to promote the Big 12 Women’s Basketball tournament.

“It’s not every day you look on social media and your head’s on a billboard,” she said while laughing in disbelief.

Billboard on a snowy day reads: "Come see All-American Ayoka Lee" and shows a female basketball player tossing a basketball. She wears a Kansas State jersey, number 50.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A billboard featuring Ayoka Lee is shrouded in snow at the beginning of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

Now the Wildcats and the Jayhawks are preparing for their first-round tournament matchups against Washington State and Georgia Tech respectively. If they win those games, they’ll each face the daunting task of possibly facing a No. 1 seed, either Stanford or North Carolina State.

What’s fueling the success of these programs?

K-State coach Jeff Mittie, who’s had a knack lately for finding players from small towns, says the caliber of play on the high school level is high enough for all the area colleges to benefit. Lee is from Byron, Minnesota, near Rochester in the southern part of the state.

“There’s been a lot of talent across the Midwest,” said Mittie. “I think it says a lot about the high school coaches. I think it says a lot about the AAU programs that these players are playing with because we’re reaping the benefits of those players.”

After the historic Mizzou game against South Carolina, junior Hayley Frank of Strafford, Missouri, said it was Missouri’s wins against top-10 teams that attracted her on recruiting visits.

“Those were like the environments that made me want to be a Mizzou Tiger,” she said.

Frank, the scoring co-leader in that game with 21 points, was part of an incredible streak at Strafford High School with 115 consecutive wins. St. Pius X of Kansas City, which finished this season with a 25-5 record under coach Krista Daniels, lost in the 2016 Class 3 state high school championship semifinal.

A woman, who is a basketball coach for Pius X High School, stand holding a laptop. A crowd sits in bleachers behind her.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Krista Daniels coached St. Pius X High School in Kansas City, Missouri, to a 25-5 record this season.

But Daniels’s up-and-coming high school stars still follow their former foes after they’ve moved on to college.

“They think that’s kind of cool and everybody’s on Twitter now, so they follow,” said Daniels. “And even if they don’t watch, they at least follow and know their stats by being on Twitter.”

The most encouraging sign for K-State, KU and Missouri is that their best players are underclassmen. That means they’ll be back next year, so there’s a chance that all three teams could make the NCAA tournament in the same season.

That’s never happened before, so even more history is possible next year.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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