LAWRENCE — For more than six minutes Wednesday night Kansas State didn’t look like a team that had lost five of its last six games, or a team that was six games under .500 and likely missing out on the postseason for the first time in four years.
No, these Wildcats — who only had one Big 12 road win all season entering its game against Kansas — looked unbeatable, and for a while, like the best team in America.
(Kansas State players celebrate after beating rival Kansas, 76-68, on Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. The Wildcats opened the game with a 21-0 run and held on for the victory to snap a three-game losing skid against the Jayhawks).
K-State made its first eight shots of the game — including nine points from Leti Romero. Even after the Wildcats missed their first attempt, a jumper from Romero, the freshman point guard was there to clean up her own miss with a steal that she fed to an open Kindred Wesemann who buried a 3-pointer.
Just like that the Wildcats were ahead 21-0 with 13:58 to play in the first half at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We were on fire,” said Wesemann, who finished with 15 points and four 3-pointers. “We couldn’t miss. Whenever you’re shooting like that, you might as well chuck it up there because it’s probably going in.”
Unfortunately for K-State, the shots stopped falling at the record pace and the Jayhawks made this a game, eventually tying it at 57 with 6:40 to play. KU’s rally still wasn’t enough in the end, though, as the Wildcats held on down the stretch for a 76-68 victory.
“We knew that in order to win the game it was going to take some real effective offense because you know KU is going to get theirs,” K-State head coach Deb Patterson said. “We were fortunate to get off to a hot start and they obviously were flat at the beginning and that gave us a window.”
The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field in the first half — 68 percent in the second — and finished better than 57 percent (31 of 54) for the game, while outscoring the Jayhawks 42-24 in the paint to earn their first win over KU since the 2011-12 season.
Even if briefly K-State (11-16, 5-11 Big 12) looked like the best team in the land to start the game — scoring at will inside and out — it’s not too difficult to imagine how the Jayhawks felt during the initial onslaught on their home court.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed, more upset or more frustrated,” Kansas head coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “It felt like shoot-around for them. Everything was uncontested. Everything was a layup.
“It’s ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”
(Kansas State freshman point guard Leti Romero pulls up for a jumper in the lane against Kansas on Wednesday night. Romero had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the 76-68 victory).
The Jayhawks (12-16, 5-11) missed their first seven shots and turned the ball over three times in the first six minutes before they finally got on the board with a free throw from Chelsea Gardner with 13:35 to play in the first half. Gardner finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Down but far from out, KU eventually cut the deficit to 10 with less than five minutes to play in the opening half before K-State charged back ahead for a 37-24 lead at the break.
Both teams traded baskets for the first six minutes of the half before the Jayhawks got serious about their comeback and put the once-surging Wildcats on their heels with a 13-3 run that covered nearly five minutes.
CeCe Harper, who scored 10 points on the surge, got her Jayhawks within two points on a steal and layup with 9:06 to play. One minute later Dakota Gonzalez tied the game at 57 on a layup, but Kansas was never able to take the lead.
“You know teams are going to make a run at you at some point, and so for us, it was more about, ‘what are we going to do on our next offensive possession?’” Patterson said. “We started standing around and got real ball dominant in one or two hands, so we tried to loosen that up with play calls and substitutions. People came in and did a nice job of getting us back in the flow.”
On a night when Romero finished with a game-high 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead the Wildcats in every category, it was little-used senior reserve Ashlynn Knoll, who became one of the Wildcats’ biggest stars down the stretch to help K-State win its first road game since Jan. 14.
Averaging just four points a game this season entering Wednesday’s contest, Knoll broke the tie with a score inside and then hit one of two free throws to put the Wildcats back ahead 60-58 with 5:48 to play — keying what turned into a 9-1 run and a 66-58 lead for K-State with less that four minutes remaining.
“I love how we stepped up on the offensive end of the floor and made some critical plays,” Patterson said. “I thought Ashlynn’s plays down the stretch were huge… she really came in and gave us an unpredictable spark.”
Gardner silenced the Wildcats’ late push with a lay-in, followed by a pair of free throws from Asia Boyd, who finished with a team-high 18 points, making it 66-62.
But again Knoll was there, scoring on a short hook over Gardner in the paint to keep the Jayhawks at arm’s length. Wesemann then delivered the knockout blow when she buried a 3-pointer in the corner with 1:26 to play to make it 72-64.
(Kansas State senior Ashlynn Knoll shoots over a Kansas defender on Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Knoll had 12 points in the Wildcats’ 76-68 victory).
“It’s my last year, my senior year, and you don’t want to leave any gym with a bad feeling in your throat,” said Knoll, who now has double figures in back-to-back games with 12 points against KU and 13 points last Saturday against West Virginia. “I wanted to win at KU. When I got my opportunity, I thought, ‘this is it, we’re not going to leave here, I’m not going to play my last game at KU and lose.’”
Senior Chantay Caron was equally as motivated to come away a winner on Wednesday night. After all, it was the Lawrence native’s last game in front her hometown crowd.
“I was trying,” said Caron, who made 5 of 6 from the field and finished with 10 points — her first game in double figures this season. “I was trying to put all I had out there on the line because I knew this was it for me here.”
The Wildcats return to action on Saturday when they travel to Stillwater, Okla., to face Oklahoma State at 2 p.m. K-State will honor its three seniors — Caron, Knoll and Katya Leick — on Monday night when the Wildcats host TCU in the regular season finale at Bramlage Coliseum, beginning at 7.