By. Luke Lazarczyk
Wildcats No. 7 ranking not changing focus to perform daily.
Leadership, defense and depth: those were Kansas State women’s basketball head coach Jeff Mittie’s keys to the season before regular season play ever began. Thriving in all three categories is a major reason for the team’s 17-1 record and No. 7 ranking in the AP Poll.
“You go one of two ways with success,” Mittie said. “You can get complacent and stop doing the things that helped you be successful or [it] can drive you to do more and hopefully it’ll drive us to do more.”
Mittie said that the team thrived with the newfound fame and recognition because of leadership from star center Ayoka Lee.
“To have a leader that is receiving all those accolades and just have her shrug them … and complement her teammates on those things, it's huge,” Mittie said.
Leading the team in points, rebounds, blocks and steals, the All-American is at the forefront of keeping the team focused and playing as a top team in the country. Mittie said his star player’s mentality has trickled down to other leaders such as guards Serena Sundell and Gabby Gregory.
“It’s human nature,” Sundell said about noticing the No. 7 AP Poll ranking. “We all see it … but you got to do a balance of enjoying that but also knowing it is just a number. … I think we’ve done a good job so far this year, everyone on the team … not bringing that into practice and holding each other accountable when we are slacking off. … We’re all on the same page … but the coaches have done a good job of keeping our focus too. So it’s an all-around effort.”
Sundell said that the coaching staff is at the forefront of keeping the team’s mentality.
“You do have to remind them to block out the noise,” Mittie said. “If you sit here and think that they’re not noticing the poll or you sit there and think they’re not getting pats on the back … you’re avoiding something that needs to be talked about. And I’m not gonna avoid it.”
Even while staying on task, the team believes the ranking is justified.
“We definitely deserve that ranking,” guard Zyanna Walker said. “We’re a top 10 team in the nation, and we know that, but we don’t want to get big heads. We want to just keep taking it one game at a time.”
Outside of dominating nightly to earn a top 10 ranking, another way the team has caught attention is through their new stuffed animal mascot, Gap Goat. Gap Goat is a stuffed animal goat, symbolizing getting three defensive stops in a row, with a hope of achieving a gap seven times in a game.
As well as having its own Instagram account, Gap Goat, along with many other goat stuffed animals, can be seen in Bramlage Coliseum as the K-State defense locks down opponents.
“I think in this case, I mean, you know, they've made it their own,” Mittie said. “They've done a heck of a job and from an defensive standpoint, we've continued to get better. That's all I care about. I think it's cool to see people bringing them to the games and stuff. … People love those kinds of different unique stories. And I like the fact that we're trained to attain a tough goal that will help us be successful on the court.”
The Wildcats rank 7th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 51.6 points per game. K-State has only allowed over 61 points once. This came in a rematch against No. 2 Iowa, falling 77-70 after taking down the fellow Midwestern powerhouse 65-58.
While the defense stars as the team’s catalyst, the offense is also steadily improving. Ranking 6th in the Big 12 and 49th in the nation, the Wildcats are scoring 76.1 points per game.
While there still is a drastic difference between the offense and defense statistically, neither is taken for granted.
“Obviously, each side, we have a lot of things that we can continue to get better at, which is exciting because you don’t want to be playing your best basketball right now,” Sundell said. “Offensively, I think we’ve just done a good job of working together in trying new things.”
A major reason for success on each side has been the team’s depth. Eight players have played in every game, while four other players have appeared in at least 11 games.
With this depth come many players with different skill sets. While Lee dominates down low and forward Gisela Sanchez provides an outside threat, a six-player guard rotation has created a well-rounded team.
Sundell and Gregory provide all-around consistency in all aspects of the game. Meanwhile, twins Jaelyn and Brylee Glenn cemented themselves as defensive anchors outside. Freshman Taryn Sides is one of the team leaders in facilitating the ball, averaging 4.2 assists in just 17 minutes per game. Walker has become a scoring spark plug off the bench, averaging eight points in less than 20 minutes per game.
“I think it's great for our team, just having multiple players that do different stuff,” Walker said. “When it all comes together, I feel like that’s what makes our team so great.”
Walker’s scoring displayed itself at the end of the third quarter against No. 10 Texas. Down two, a Sundell block and outlet pass set up a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Walker to take the lead. The crowd of over 7,000 that showed out on the snowy afternoon erupted as the ball sank through the net.
“It meant a lot,” Walker said about her Texas performance and the crowd. “I’ve worked very hard for a long time and just to see it come together … just seeing success happen. It feels really great.”
As well as Walker, Mittie credited forwards Imani Lester and Eliza Maupin for adding a boost to the team on the court in the top 10 victory.
With two top 10 victories, an undefeated Big 12 record, an upper-echelon defense, a new mascot and more, the Wildcats have erupted onto the scene for everyone to gather around.
“It really does feel like a true family here,” Walker said as a redshirt freshman transfer. “My teammates, they feel like my sisters.”