Cats hope to keep edge in NCAA opener

By Joshua Kinder

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Deb Patterson doesn’t have any fancy speech planned for Saturday morning. All the words have been spoken.

The Kansas State women’s basketball coach perhaps used up those motivational speeches going into the Big 12 tournament last week in Kansas City.

Patterson’s eighth-seeded Wildcats, who open play in the NCAA Championship here on Saturday at 10:20 a.m. (CST) against 9-seed Princeton, made the most of the Big 12 tournament with a win over Iowa State and hard-fought game against top-ranked Baylor. More importantly, that win snapped a three-game losing skid that about derailed K-State’s NCAA hopes.

K-State left Kansas City with a renewed focus, a stronger competitive spirit, so to speak, and ready for the NCAA tournament.

But as if facing a hot Princeton (24-4) team isn’t difficult enough to prepare for, the Wildcats also had to find ways this week to keep that edge they rediscovered a week ago.

“At this point, they have to be responsible for that,” Patterson said. “It’s past the point of motivation. This is the motivation, this is the dream and this is the time of the season — your seniors are potentially playing their last game — and you’re looking at the excitement and attention brought to the game, fresh and new opponents.

“That’s the kind of stuff, if you’re a great competitor, should really thrill and excite you.”

K-State (19-13) has shown its capable of beating any team put in front of it this season with 10 wins over NCAA tournament teams, including defending national champion and No. 3-seed Texas A&M to open Big 12 play.

But the Wildcats also showed that they’re capable of losing to anyone too, evidence being the overtime loss at Missouri, a rout at Iowa State and the regular season finale loss at home to Texas Tech.

But in the NCAA tournament, there can’t be letdowns. This is it. Every game is a one-game season in a way, and the Wildcats know that.

“Everyone’s tired and everyone’s been beaten up, but we learned that we won’t win if we don’t play our best,” said K-State junior guard Brittany Chambers, who was a first-team All-Big 12 pick this season. “We found that our really quick, losing to Missouri and Iowa State like that.

“We went into the Big 12 tournament realizing that Iowa State kicked our butt twice and we needed to play our best to beat them. Even against Baylor, that was the best that we’ve played against them in two years and I thought that we really held our own, especially in the second half.”

For senior forward Jalana Childs, the motivation this time of year has a lot to do with the sun setting on her college career. Every game could be her last.

“Three of us starters are seniors and there’s no doubt in my mind that we are going to give it everything that we have,” said Childs, an All-Big 12 first-team selection who led the Wildcats in scoring this season at 14.5 points per game. “I think that’s what has really kept us together. When we played Iowa State and Baylor, we never gave up, no matter what happened.”

Childs said no words are needed to motivate this team, as the Wildcats try to break into the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

“Nothing needs to be said now, it’s just a feeling that’s there,” she said. “I’m expecting that feeling to be there in practice this week and also when we play on Saturday. I have a good feeling about us. I’m just excited to play.”

Given that, Patterson thinks this year’s Wildcats are mentally tougher than last season’s squad that made an early exit in the NCAA tournament, losing to Purdue in the first round in Storrs, Conn.

“I think this team is definitely tougher mentally than the team we brought on the road a year ago,” she said. “I really like the character that they developed. I think we hit the skids during that three-game period late in Big 12 play after competing in this double-round robin, but I absolutely love their bounce back in the Big 12 tournament.”

It’s that rigorous schedule that Patterson said toughened this team up during the course of the season. The Wildcats played the fourth-hardest schedule in the country and still finished tied for fourth in the Big 12.

“I love the toughness that they brought to competing in this schedule this year,” she said. “I think a lot of that is Branshea (Brown), and Jalana digging in as seniors that have a lot of experience. Brittany was fighting through some highs and lows, Jalana fighting through some highs and lows, and Mariah White understood more of what we needed from her in order to be successful.”

Scouting Princeton

Princeton finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the country with a 17-game winning streak, including 16 by double figures. The Tigers, who have lost just one conference game the last three years, were a perfect a 14-0 in the Ivy League.

The Tigers, making their third straight NCAA appearance, earned the first-ever national ranking last week, coming at No. 24 in the Associated Press poll. It was also the Ivy League’s first-ever national ranking.

In fact, Princeton’s No. 9 seed is the highest seed for any Ivy League team in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers were an 11 a year ago and a 12-seed in 2010. The only win by an Ivy League team in the NCAA tournament was in 1998 when No. 16-seed Harvard defeated No. 1-seed Stanford.

K-State and Princeton share two similar opponents this season. Princeton defeated NCAA tournament-participant Marist 68-51, while K-State edged the Red Foxes 57-56 on the road. The other shared opponent was Hofstra. The Wildcats lost to Hofstra in the Cancun tournament in November, while the Tigers defeated Hofstra 74-69.

But other than those two games for both schools, the schedules were actually quite different. K-State’s RPI was 17 and strength of schedule was fourth in the country, with a 5-9 record against RPI top-50 programs. Princeton’s RPI was 23rd, but ranked 86th in strength of schedule, with a 2-2 mark against top-50 teams.

In fact, Princeton hasn’t played a team with an RPI higher than No. 129 since Dec. 31, which includes all 14 Ivy League victories. The Tigers’ four losses came to Delaware (81-70), Navy (65-52), DePaul (78-67) and Stanford (86-66) - all four of which made the NCAA tournament.

Probable starters

No. 9 PRINCETON (24-4)

  Yr. Ht. Ppg. Reb.

G — Lauren Polansky Jr. 5-8 2.7 4.0

G — Lauren Edwards Sr. 6-0 11.5 4.8

F — Kate Miller Jr. 6-0 5.9 3.3

F — Niveen Rasheed Jr. 6-0 16.8 8.8

C — Davona Allgood Sr. 6-3 10.0 5.9

No. 8 KANSAS STATE (19-13)

  Yr. Ht. Ppg. Reb.

G — Brittany Chambers Jr. 5-8 14.3 6.3

G — Tasha Dickey Sr. 5-10 10.1 4.1

G — Mariah White Jr. 5-8 5.3 4.7

F — Jalana Childs Sr. 6-2 14.5 4.9

F — Branshea Brown Sr. 6-2 5.2 4.7

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