Over the past several weeks, Kansas State head coach Jeff Mittie became a Stanford gymnastics fan.
The Cardinal is hosting the Pac-12 championships, which conflicts with the women’s NCAA tournament, paving the way for K-State to host the first two rounds this weekend.
“I think Manhattan, this area and the state of Kansas have a great appreciation for women’s basketball,” he said. “You’ve seen that through our attendance this year, you’ve seen that through the history of our program, so it’s exciting. It’s exciting for our overall program, and it’s exciting for our players.”
Seniors Bre Lewis and Kindred Wesemann enjoy getting to play in Bramlage Coliseum’s familiar confines on a bigger stage.
“Just being able to stay at home and having familiar things around you,” Wesemann said. “You’re running out of the same tunnel you’ve ran out of a thousand times, and it’ll feel great.”
First up, the No. 7 seed Wildcats (22-10, 11-7 Big 12) will take on No. 10 seed Drake.
Drake (28-4) comes in boasting the second-longest active winning streak in the NCAA at 22 games. The Bulldogs were a perfect 18-0 in conference play, beating Northern Iowa, 74-68, in overtime to win the Missouri Valley Conference. K-State lost to Northern Iowa, 67-59, on Dec. 22.
Drake averages 83 points per game and is led by senior forward Lizzy Wendell, who averages 21.1 points per game. Freshman Becca Hittner (12.4), sophomores Sara Rhine (11.6) and Sammie Bachrodt (10.3) and senior Caitlin Ingle (10.4) also average in double figures. Wendell is second among active scoring leaders with 2,534 career points.
“They’re a very explosive offensive team,” Mittie said. “The emphasis for us, Kindred mentioned it, we’ll have to get them stopped in transition. We’ll have to make sure we have great awareness on defense. We’ve done what we can in practice to emphasize those things, and I think our group understands that Drake is a very, very talented team.”
Mittie doesn’t consider freshman forwards Peyton Williams and Eternati Willock freshman anymore, and feels the pair, along with the rest of the team, has done a good job on staying focused throughout the season.
“We have to play to our strengths, and we have to eliminate weaknesses as much as possible. Our group has always done, I think, a very solid job of coming in and preparing and doing the things necessary to do that to the best of their ability.”
K-State’s defense holds teams to 62.5 points per game, and Wesemann said K-State will have to focus on transition defense against Drake.
“They get their hands up on defense, just like we do,” she said. “They like to push a lot in transition.”
The Bulldogs’ head coach, Jennie Baranczyk, is no stranger to K-State. The fifth-year Drake coach was a graduate assistant with the Wildcats in 2004-05 and an assistant coach in 2005-06.
Offensively, Wesemann and Lewis lead the way with 14 and 13.7 points per game, respectively. Lewis also leads the Wildcats in rebounding, pulling down 8.3 boards per game. Karyla Middlebrook and Eternati Willock also post solid scoring numbers with 9.4 and seven points per game each.
Mittie takes pride in his team improving every year. This is the Wildcats’ second-consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
“They’ve really committed themselves to playing at a high standard and doing that consistently,” he said. “You don’t take these NCAA tournament berths for granted. There’s 64 in our game, and they’re hard to get.”
Wesemann and Lewis said they love the fan support over the years, from their “adopted grandparents” to students.
“I was going to the grocery store to get Pop-Tarts or something, and this guy was getting Pop-Tarts, too, and he was like, ‘Hey, you’re Kindred Wesemann,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ Just having small conversations, whether it be at the gas station, grocery store, after games, whatever, they’re awesome.”
The last time K-State hosted an NCAA tournament game was 2002-03. Mittie remembers assistant coach Jacie Hoyt telling him about how she looked up to Nicole Ohlde and Kendra Wecker, the stars of that era.
Now, Mittie wonders who is looking up to this year’s Wildcats.
“I think that there’s some young girls that want to be Kindred Wesemann,” he said. “There’s some young girls across the state of Kansas that want to be Bre Lewis. Those things are pretty cool.”