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Kinder: Wildcats beat the odds to finish season strong

By Joshua Kinder

Kansas State lost 18 games this season, finished eighth in the Big 12, won only five conference games and won just one game during the entire month of February.

That’s one way to look at the Wildcats’ season.

But it doesn’t tell the whole story of what could be considered one of the most successful K-State seasons, given the mountain of obstacles the Wildcats overcame to actually win 19 games, advance to the semifinal round of the WNIT and finish with the 11th winning season in the last 12 years.

Winning wasn’t going to be easy this year. It rarely is actually. But going into the season, K-State had to scrap its traditional gameplan and opt for a quicker, more long-range approach because of a lack of height.

Little did the Wildcats know that would be the least of their problems at the end of the season.

Freshman guard Kelly Thomson and junior forward Katya Leick were lost for the season during preseason workouts, both tearing ACLs. And that was only the start of what was the most injury-riddled season in the 17 years under coach Deb Patterson.

By the end of January, the list of injured grew to five, plus one player left the program at semester. Junior forward Ashlynn Knoll and junior guard Ashia Woods suffered season-ending injuries just minutes apart during practice Jan. 21 — Knoll another ACL and Woods a torn Achilles. Freshman forward Stacey Malone was also unavailable from mid-January on because of a foot injury.

That left just seven healthy players for the final 70 days of the season — three veterans, two inexperienced sophomores and two newcomers — and nobody taller than 5-feet-11 in one of the biggest and most physical conferences in America.

Season done right?

Hardly. That’s when the Wildcats’ season really began. K-State upset No. 12 Oklahoma State in overtime on Jan. 23, took two of three from Texas, knocked off Texas Tech to open March and then won four straight in the WNIT to play on the final week of the season.

“Hopefully we do use this to understand what you’re capable of in times of adversity,” Patterson said. “It’s press on, find a way and be better and step up for one another. We had two great leaders here (Brittany Chambers and Mariah White) who demanded excellence from their teammates, demanded a standard of competitiveness and that was critical to us not packing it in.”

To say the Wildcats overachieved is clearly an understatement in a season like no other.

“With a full squad we were picked ninth in the preseason, and this group fought their way as a group of seven through conference play to an eighth-place finish,” Patterson said. “And the difference from seventh and eighth place, the difference in an NCAA tournament bid and a non-NCAA tournament bid was two wins. So how in the world do you do that?

“It was an extraordinary push and extraordinary fight, character, toughness. So, when people say it really wasn’t the season you wanted it to be, I say ‘well, we didn’t want the injuries, but these young ladies would tell you we gave everything there was to give to it.’”

In doing so, Chambers provided Wildcat fans with the single greatest individual season in school history, scoring a record 778 points, connecting on 117 3-pointers and averaging 21 points and 7.6 rebounds a game to become K-State’s first All-American since Shalee Lehning.

Chambers capped her career as K-State’s third-leading scorer with 2,156 points. Her 350 career 3-pointers rank ninth in NCAA history and second in school and Big 12 history behind only former Wildcat Laurie Koehn, who is the NCAA’s Division-I leader. The senior guard is fifth in K-State history with 862 rebounds, eighth with 362 assists, first in minutes and games played and career starts.

And as much as this season was a record-breaking farewell for Chambers, it was also a lesson in adversity and on-the-job training for others.

“Sometimes when you go through such a challenge, good things come of it,” said Chambers, who scored a single-game record 42 points in the Wildcats’ WNIT win over Texas Southern. “Players like Bri (Craig) and Haley (Texada) and Chantay (Caron) had to play 40 minutes a game sometimes. That wouldn’t have happened if everybody was healthy, so now you have experience coming in next year… Then you get all the others back, who can make contributions next year.

“I was proud that we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves. That showed a lot of character.”

But perhaps Patterson said it best.

“It was an extraordinary season and extremely successful, relative to the adversity that they faced,” she said.

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