Bri Craig is only a sophomore, but there isn’t much she hasn’t done in her year and a half at Kansas State.
A year ago the Wildcats probably don’t make the WNIT without Craig, who as a freshman started 34 games, averaging almost nine points in 34 minutes a game. Only Brittany Chambers played more minutes than Craig.
(Kansas State’s Bri Craig shoots a free throw during a game earlier this season. The Wildcats face Kansas on Saturday).
While that was a learning experience for the 5-foot-10 guard, this season, Craig has been asked to do something entirely different for the Wildcats, who host rival Kansas on Saturday afternoon at 1 — televised nationally on FSN.
With more depth and size this season, Craig is in a backup role. Still important, Craig is often the Wildcats’ first player off the bench, tasked with doing a variety of things to provide K-State (8-10, 2-5 Big 12) with the spark it may need.
“Last year, we only had seven players, so we were expected to play the whole game,” said Craig, who had the fourth-most minutes for a debut season in school history a year ago. “It’s been a little bit of a transition for me and I think I’m settling more into coming off the bench now, finding my role on the team and finding that spark. I just try to do whatever it is my team needs me to do at that time — defense, rebounding, scoring, whatever.
“Playing as many minutes as I did last year — making mistakes and having to fix those mistakes, learning the game — it really did benefit me.”
But Craig had a slow start to her sophomore season, scoring three points or less in three of her first six games — including her only two starts of the season when she was a combined 2 for 17 from the field. In fact, Craig reached double figures once the first 14 games this season, an 11-point effort against UC Santana Barbara on Dec. 15.
“When you are sitting, sometimes you just naturally take a more passive posture, and your confidence may be shaken,” K-State coach Deb Patterson said.
But along the way something has clicked in for the Lincoln, Neb., native, who over the last two games has been the most consistent Wildcat, even as a bench player.
Craig made 3 of 4 from the field and 4 of 6 from the foul line down the stretch to seal an upset win over Top-25 ranked Iowa State last Saturday. Craig was one of the only bright spots for the Wildcats on Wednesday night at Baylor when she had 13 points, five rebounds and five assists in the loss to the Bears.
“What she has done is learn to embrace her role,” Patterson said. “She’s been able to come in and change the game, be a difference-maker, evaluate what’s happening early in the game and get a feel and not have to be reacting in play. That’s been very helpful for her. I think her basketball IQ has grown as she’s stepped on the floor because she has watched.
“She’s getting to the rim and finishing, hitting 3s because she’s not rushing. Now she’s playing quality defense. It’s fun to see her game begin to come together.”
Freshman point guard Leti Romero has led the Wildcats in scoring most of the season (14.2) and junior Ashia Woods (10.2) has emerged in the last five weeks as a double-figure scorer every night. That’s two players. But Patterson said to win in the Big 12 she needs three or four scorers she can count on every night. The third might be Craig, even if it’s off the bench.
“It’s very critical to our overall success,” she said. “In this league, if you want to win games, you’re going to need good, solid production — that second, third and fourth scorer. It really changes the game.
“Bri has made some big shots in the last few games, gotten some big rebounds, stepped to the line with big confidence. It really just grows the confidence of everyone around you when you’re bringing that poise and composure.”
Doing it off the bench isn’t easy, though. One wouldn’t think it would be that hard. After all, at some point in every game, nearly every player goes to the bench to sit for a couple minutes.
“I think it’s about finding your groove after the game has started,” said Craig, who is averaging 5.9 points a game this season. “You don’t want to come in and make mistakes right away, especially if they already have a flow out there.
“At first, I was thinking a little bit too much, but now I’m letting the game come to me more. I’m more relaxed now and just playing.”