Ayoka Lee shoots

Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee (50) goes up for a shot during the team’s game against Oklahoma at Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 31. Lee leads the Wildcats into the 2021-22 season after the team struggled during last year’s coranvirus-ridden campaign.

Kansas State women’s basketball is just a couple weeks away from opening the 2020-21 season. Last week, head coach Jeff Mittie and the Wildcats hosted their media day at the Ice Family Basketball Center in preparation for the start of the season on Oct. 31.

Here are four things to watch for heading into the season:

Players committed to putting 2020-21 campaign behind them

Last season was difficult for every program in the country because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But K-State had an especially rough go of things, as it ended the year with a 9-18 record, including a 3-15 mark in conference. It was the worst league mark for the Wildcats since 2000-01, when they won only two Big 12 games.

After last season ended, a key piece of the team departed: guard Christianna Carr, All-Big 12 honorable mention and the player who led Manhattan High to its first state title in school history as a junior in 2016-17, transferred to Syracuse.

However, the leaders on this year’s team said they are committed to leaving the unpleasantness of last season in the past and moving forward into 2021-22 with optimism.

“A lot of people want to try and compare this year to last year, but we’re trying to keep that door closed,” senior guard Rachel Ranke said. “Last year was last year, and we can only focus on this year now and what we have going for us. We’re just worried about what we have today and what we can do going forward.”

Lee ready to add more lines to stout resume

Already an All-America candidate for the upcoming season, junior center Ayoka Lee returns to lead the Wildcats this season after averaging 19.1 points per game last season. It was the highest scoring average in a season for a K-State player since Brittany Chambers averaged a school-record 21 points per game in the 2012-13 season.

Lee had the second highest field goal percentage in program history (.621), which ranked third nationally and first in the Big 12. She is one of only two players in history to shoot 60% or better from the field and 80% or better from the free throw line.

Defensively, she was one of the top shot blockers in the country last season, ranking 29th in the country in total blocks and second among Big 12 players in blocks per game.

Last season, Lee had 10 double-doubles — including a memorable 37-point, 18-rebound effort against Oklahoma on Jan. 31.

That doesn’t mean Lee has no room for improvement. Mittie is focused on helping Lee expand her game, making her even more dangerous moving forward.

“I’d like to see her get more aggressive when she gets a step out of the paint,” Mittie said. “That’s an area where she’s still a little too indecisive. I’d like to see her more aggressive when the double team comes. That’s something we’re going to be working on a lot over the next few weeks, because we feel teams will get some extra help down there.”

Newcomers expected to provide spark

The Wildcats added six newcomers — two sophomores and four freshmen — to this year’s squad.

Mittie expects most of them to play a role this season.

The most exciting of the bunch might be 5-foot-9 sophomore guard Rebekah Dallinger. She comes to K-State from Sydney, Australia, by way of Miles Community College in Miles, Montana, where she was named the 2021 NJCAA Division I Player of the Year last season, leading the nation in points per game (25.8), points scored (644), field goals made (212) and free throws made (163).

“Dallinger shoots the ball very well,” Mittie said. “She’s shot it very well so far this fall through a few scrimmages. She’s got a scorer’s mentality.

“It’s a big jump from Miles to here, and she knows that and she’ll have to adjust to that. She has a knack for scoring the ball, though. She had the ball in her hand a lot at Miles, and we’re running her at both (on and off-ball guard). Teams are going to lock down differently at our level than the junior college level, but I think she’s where she should be. She’s progressed nicely.”

Joining Dallinger from the transfer portal is 6-foot-3 forward Heavenly Greer, who played in 10 games during her freshman year at Oklahoma and averaged 2.2 points and 2.8 rebounds. Greer was rated as the No. 23 forward in the country by ESPN Hoopgurlz and No. 59 nationally by Prospects Nation.

“She’s going to remind you a little bit of (former forward Peyton Williams) in terms of her passing ability,” Mittie said. “She has great vision.”

Greer still is awaiting a waiver from the NCAA to be able to play this season, which Mittie said the school’s coaching staff is working on during the preseason.

Serena Sundell, a 6-foot-1 guard from Maryville, Mo., highlights the freshman class.

She was the 2021 Miss Show-Me Basketball award winner as well as the 2020-21 Class 4 Player of the Year, selected by the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association (MBCA). She averaged 25.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 3.1 steals and a block during her senior year.

Also joining Sundell from Missouri are twin guards Jaelyn (6-foot-1) and Brylee (6-foot) Glenn.

Jaelyn was named Class 3 All-State pick by the MBCA last year and was a 2021 McDonald’s All-America nominee. She was the 54th-ranked overall prospect in the 2021 class according to ESPNW Hoopgurlz, and the No. 21 guard. She scored more than 1,000 career points and holds the Barstow School career record for assists and steals along with the single game record for points (58), rebounds (22) and steals (13).

Brylee was the 75th-ranked player in the country by Prospects Nation and also was named Class 3 All-State alongside her sister. She was the 2021 District 15 Player of the Year and the 2021 Crossroads Conference Player of the Year. She ended the season averaging 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. She finished her high school career with more than 1,000 points. She holds the school record for scoring average and career games with 40 or more points scored (three).

“The positives are that everyone’s had good moments in practice,” Mittie said of his freshmen. “The negatives are I’m not sure anyone has separated themselves right now. We’re still trying to figure out who plays better together at this stage of the season, and that takes some time. That’s one of the reasons why we’re scrimmaging as much as we can: so we can try to get that feel.”

Lastly, K-State signed 5-foot-11 Danish guard Malene Lind Pedersen.

But she won’t take the floor this season.

Mittie said Pedersen will redshirt after suffering a knee injury before arriving on campus.

Role players have progressed

Mittie indicated two players in particular have improved in leaps and bounds since the end of the 2020-21 season.

Senior 5-foot-10 guard Cymone Goodrich got a jump start over the summer by competing in the 2021 USA Basketball Red Bull 3X National tournament along with Lee, Ranke and Emilee Ebert.

Both Goodrich and Mittie credit the senior’s improvement to her experience in the tournament. In fact, Mittie said that of the team’s returners, Goodrich has shown the most gains of any player.

“She had a great tournament in the 3-on-3 tournament over the summer, and I think she came back into the summer with some more confidence,” Mittie said. “Her conditioning level is higher, she’s making more plays at the defensive end, and she’s getting to the rim very well.”

Goodrich averaged 18.9 minutes a game throughout last season, with 11 starts. She set career highs in rebounds (54), assists (68) and free throw percentage (.710).

The tallest player in program history, 6-foot-7 sophomore center Taylor Lauterbach also has progressed.

Lauterbach didn’t have an eye-popping freshman season — she averaged only 1.9 points per game — but her 61 rebounds and 17 blocks in just 9.2 minutes per game show a bigger role may be in store for the sophomore.

“Taylor is one of our hardest workers,” Mittie said. “If we practice in the morning, there’s a pretty good chance Tay is going to be back here at 3:30 or 4 that afternoon getting shots up. She’s really made some really good strides. She’s more physical than she was, she’s continued to grow in her explosiveness off the floor. I feel very confident if we run into foul trouble or Yoki (Ayoka Lee) needs a breather early, we can put Taylor in there … There was a bigger gap last year (between Lee and Lauterbach), let’s be honest. But that gap has closed because of Taylor’s hard work.”

The Wildcats will open their season with exhibitions versus Washburn (Oct. 31) and Pittsburg State (Nov. 5) before officially tipping off the 2021-22 campaign Nov. 9 versus Central Arkansas.

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