If there’s one position the Kansas State coaching staff knows something about its point guard.
After all, associate head coach Kamie Ethridge and assistant Shalee Lehning have 1,576 assists between them as collegiate players.
Given that, both have given their stamp of approval on the season point guard Mariah White is having for the Wildcats.
“The things about Mariah are the intangibles she brings to the floor, her will for our team to win and her willingness to do whatever it takes for us to be successful,” Ethridge said during a recent interview. “She’s completely selfless and doesn’t care if she scores a point and wants to set up her teammates.”
That’s exactly how Ethridge played the game at Texas, where she was honored with the Wade Trophy following her senior season with the Longhorns — as she’s considered one of the absolute bests to have ever played the position.
Lehning, like Ethridge, was an All-American point guard, racking up a school-record 800 career assists during her four years with the Wildcats.
She, too, has a great respect for White’s accomplishments this season.
“She’s a player that doesn’t score the ball much, and I know from experience what that’s like and that typically, you’re not going to get the attention,” Lehning said of White.
White has given the Wildcats their first considerable legitimate pass-first point guard since Lehning, as she’s fourth in the Big 12 in assists per game at 5.1. In fact, White has assisted on 32 percent of K-State’s field goals — the highest since Lehning’s 46.8 percent during the 2008-09 season.
The junior from Midwest City, Okla., is third in the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio and 20th nationally. White’s 272 career assists are 15th in KSU history, and her assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best in school history.
“I love coaching Mariah White,” Lehning said. “You know everyday when you walk into the gym what you’re going to get from her. She runs through the wall for us and turned the corner when she realized that if you go all-in — buy into the program — the ones who buy in are the really good players who reach their potential.
“She’s taking in everything and she sees it and is reaping the benefits now.”
And so are the Wildcats, who are fourth in the Big 12 and just one game out of second place, behind Oklahoma, Texas A&M and top-ranked Baylor. K-State can make up that game with a win over the 15th-ranked Aggies Wednesday night at 7, as the Wildcats go for the season sweep in College Station, Texas.
White runs an offense geared around the inside-outside game of Brittany Chambers and Jalana Childs. Yet, Lehning sees White as the as the Wildcats’ “X factor.”
“She’s our engine,” she said. “You have Brittany Chambers and Jalana Childs, who everybody keys in on, but Mariah can distribute the ball and her defense is unlike any defender we’ve had maybe in the last eight years.”
White was solid a year ago as a first-year every-game starter, but she’s turned a corner this season and taken her game to another level, stuffing the stat sheet for the Wildcats game after game.
At 5-foot-7, White might just be the most versatile player K-State has. She averages 6.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game to go along with her 5.1 assists — seemingly giving the Wildcats whatever they need in any given game when they need it the most.
“I think a lot of it is confidence and that she knows who she is as a player,” Ethridge said. “She’s smart and experience slows the game down for you, so she’s in total control. On top of that, she’s bigger, stronger, faster and better conditioned.”
White credits her teammates for the improved assist numbers.
“I think a lot of it is just my teammates stepping up,” White said. “I thought it was always there, but now we’re making more shots, so the numbers are coming with it.
“They’re just getting open and making shots.”
White’s biggest improvement has come in her game as a scorer. A year ago, it was known that she wasn’t going to take the open 3-point attempt, so defenses sagged off of her and directed their attention elsewhere. After all, White was just 3-for-8 from behind the arc all season.
This season, however, White is making teams pay dearly for ignoring her, as she’s 11-for-34 from behind the arc and has twice led the team in scoring, including a career-high 23 points against Missouri on Jan. 12.
“She makes all the passes, gets the big rebounds when we need them, she’s tough and she’s showing confidence in her shot,” Lehning said. “All season, we’ve been telling her she has the green light and now it’s starting to go in.”
Still, though, White prefers to find the open shot for somebody else. That’s the way she’s built, something Chambers said has to come natural for somebody to be effective at it. Chambers understands all too well just how difficult it is to defer if you aren’t a pass-first point guard. The junior tried to be that point guard early on for the Wildcats, but it became quite clear that she was better suited as a scorer.
“It was a lot harder for me,” she said. “You can’t just make someone into an amazing passer. You have to have it and she has amazing vision — sees everything out there. It’s a talent and she has it.”
With more confidence, White is also showing a flash for the dramatic — ripping off a few no-look passes from time to time and pushing the tempo for electric feeds under the basket.
“Sometimes I’ll try something and then I’m like, ‘oh no, maybe I shouldn’t have done that,’” said White, who had a career-high 11 assists against Texas A&M earlier this season. “But then it gets through and we get a score — so that makes it all worth it. That’s exciting to me.”
But the way White runs point is different than the way Lehning did it. The mindset and goal is the same, sure — to get the ball to scorers. But White is built lower to the ground and uses a power game and strength to control her handle and find her teammates with a certain amount of quickness K-State hasn’t always had at the position.
“Mariah has a lot more athleticism and quickness than I did,” Lehning said. “Her distributing the ball comes from great court vision and she’s quick to make decisions. I worked more on anticipating and had to read things — I had to because I wasn’t as quick. She’s just a strong athlete who can really do anything. She’s a fun person to coach because of her versatility.”
KANSAS STATE (15-7, 6-4)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Brittany Chambers Jr. 5-8 16.1 6.4
G — Tasha Dickey Sr. 5-10 10.0 4.2
G — Mariah White Jr. 5-8 6.0 4.3
F — Jalana Childs Sr. 6-2 14.3 5.2
F — Branshea Brown Sr. 6-2 5.0 5.3
No. 15 TEXAS A&M (16-5, 7-3)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Sydney Carter Sr. 5-6 12.0 3.1
G — Alexia Standish Fr. 5-8 3.9 0.9
G — Tyra White Sr. 6-0 13.8 5.5
F — Adaora Elonu Sr. 6-1 12.0 6.7
C — Kelsey Bone Jr. 6-4 12.4 7.1