KANSAS CITY — Kansas State women’s basketball head coach Jeff Mittie told his team ahead of its game with Texas Tech Thursday not to expect him to direct the offense each time up the court.
It wasn’t an abdication of responsibility, but rather an indication of how quickly he wanted the Wildcats to move when they had the ball. The game plan paid off, and ninth-seeded K-State combined disruptive defense with an aggressive offensive approach in a 79-69 win over the eighth-seeded Lady Raiders in the first round of the Big 12 tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
The Wildcats (17-15) came up with 12 steals and forced a total of 16 Texas Tech turnovers, off of which they scored 22 points. When they snagged one of their 33 rebounds, they pushed the ball up the court and put up 20 fastbreak points. And they kept up a relentless attack at the basket, tallying 44 points in the paint.
“We wanted to get the ball out in transition,” said sophomore point guard Serena Sundell. “We wanted to be very active on defense. We had a bunch of deflections, steals. Rebound and go. Coach Mittie said, ‘Don’t look at me to call plays.’ That’s what he told me. So I’m like, ‘OK, just get out and go.’ That’s what was working for us.”
Gabby Gregory led K-State with 27 points and nine rebounds. Sundell scored 19 points, grabbed nine boards, dished out five assists and snatched four steals, and Eliza Maupin added 10 points off the bench.
In addition to their defensive production, the Wildcats shot 51% (29-of-57) from the field — their second-best clip this season — and 5-of-19 from 3-point range. They were particularly effective inside the arc, where they made 24 of 36 attempts, and went 16-of-22 at the free-throw line.
Mittie said the offensive strategy of advancing rapidly up the floor had nothing to do with weaknesses he and his staff saw from the Lady Raiders (18-14) and everything to do with K-State’s own strengths.
“When we play well, this is what we do well,” he said. “...I do think over the course of maybe the last couple weeks, there have been times when our offense has gotten stagnant and we’ve held the ball too much. The ball has been sticking. It stuck early in this game a little bit, but as the game kept going, the ball moved better, and we found open players much, much better.”
Despite their final offensive numbers, the Wildcats had a hard time finding the bottom of the net in the opening minutes. K-State went 3-of-11 in the first quarter, which put them behind 11-8 after 10 minutes of play.
The Wildcats are no strangers to falling behind early on, having done it repeatedly throughout the season. But on Thursday, instead of falling into a huge hole, their defense kept Texas Tech within arm’s reach, even when their shots weren’t yet passing through the hoop on the other end.
And then, when things changed in the second period, K-State’s 10-3 run allowed it to swipe its first lead at 20-19 with 3:38 remaining before halftime. The Wildcats made 9 of 17 shots in the second and went into the intermission on top 27-26, although they were 0-of-8 on their 3-point tries.
Throughout the year, Mittie has said that his squad often allows its lack of offensive success to negatively affect its effort on defense. But that wasn’t the case against the Lady Raiders. In fact, it was K-State’s defensive effort that compensated for its early offensive difficulties.
“That shows what we’re capable of,” said sophomore guard Jaelyn Glenn, who finished with five points, seven rebounds and four steals. “We’re capable of getting through adversity, which we can struggle with at times. Like Coach Mittie said, it’s a new season, being here in the Big 12 tournament. That shows that we want to be in this tournament, not letting our offense affect our defense, being well-rounded.”
Texas Tech briefly stole the lead back early in the second half before the Wildcats went on a 9-0 spurt to open a 38-31 advantage with 5:27 to go in the third quarter. They shot 62.5% in the period and the margin grew to as many as 10 before the Lady Raiders closed it to 50-42 as the contest headed to its final frame.
Sundell converted a traditional 3-point play to begin the fourth, but then Texas Tech embarked on an 18-9 scoring spree to make it a 62-60 game with 4:58 remaining. During that span the Lady Raiders used a full-court press to hamper K-State’s offense, and Mittie addressed the issue in the ensuing media timeout.
“In that stretch, we were kind of careless with the ball, loose with the ball, allowing them to get their hands on passes and things like that,” said Gregory, who scored 14 of her points in the fourth. “(Mittie said) just to be strong with the ball and continue to do what we were doing.”
Coming out of the break, the Wildcats outscored Texas Tech 8-2 to get the lead back to eight at 70-62 with 2:06 left on the clock. The Lady Raiders’ Bre’Amber Scott — who scored a game-high 27 points — notched two free throws to draw her team within six points at the 40-second mark, but then K-State swiftly broke Texas Tech’s press and found a wide-open Sarah Shematsi underneath the basket.
Shematsi made the layup, drew the foul and made the free throw to slam the door on any hope of a Lady Raiders comeback attempt.
“I’m proud of our group for fighting,” Mittie said. “We had some players step up. Eliza Maupin had a big game. Gabby, Serena, sitting here, both had really good games. But I thought Maupin gave us a big lift off the bench. She really played well in her first tournament experience.”
With the win, the Wildcats moved on to a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded and 15th-ranked Texas at 1:30 p.m. Friday. K-State has struggled against the Longhorns this season, falling 87-41 on the road Dec. 31 and 80-52 at home last Saturday.
But Thursday’s victory has the Wildcats feeling optimistic.
“We definitely have to step up our physicality,” said sophomore guard Brylee Glenn, who scored eight points and had three steals against Texas Tech. “Texas is a very big team, so we have to match them, especially defensively. But now that I’ve seen our offense not dictate our defense, I’m confident in our defense and that we will be able to match their physicality tomorrow. I’m feeling good going into tomorrow, for sure.”