WBB: Cats Back in the Bracket

To understand the importance of the NCAA Tournament for Kansas State freshman point guard Serena Sundell, you must first understand this: Her family kept a bracket in their home in Maryville, Missouri. Parents Bob and Korena, brother Jalen, and Serena were always super competitive. So, this was an annual tradition for the Sundell family. Some families hang ornaments. The Sundell’s fill out brackets.

“Then at an assembly in the seventh grade, I got an award for guessing that Villanova was going to win March Madness, so that was pretty cool,” Sundell said. “It’s always been a big deal in my family. We’re a big basketball family.

“To be a part of the NCAA Tournament now is surreal.”

K-State discovered its 2022 NCAA Tournament opponent and destination at 7:07 p.m. on Sunday as cheers rang out across family and friends in the Shamrock Zone. TV cameras panned to K-State players, dressed in matching white long-sleeved t-shirts, as they leaped from their seats — a sight that was zapped across TV sets throughout the nation on ESPN.

“LET’S GO, LADIES!” fans yelled in celebration.

Led by 2022 Lisa Leslie Award finalist Ayoka Lee, the ninth-seeded Wildcats, 19-12, prepare to face eight-seed Washington State, 19-10, in Saturday’s first-round game of the Bridgeport Regional in Raleigh, North Carolina. K-State is 4-0 all-time against Washington State and last faced the Cougars in 2009.

Washington State is currently coached by former longtime K-State associate head coach Kamie Ethridge, who was named Pac 12 Coach of the Year, while recent K-State Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Laurie Koehn serves as Ethridge’s associate head coach and former K-State head coach Deb Patterson serves the program as the Director of Player Personnel and Program Analytics. The Cougars finished third in the Pac-12 regular season and fell to Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on March 3.

The K-State/Washington State winner is likely to face No. 1 seed North Carolina State on its home court. K-State suffered a 90-69 loss to the Wolfpack in Raleigh on November 19 when they were ranked fifth in the nation.

“My immediate reaction was we hadn’t been rumored to play Washington State at all,” K-State head coach Jeff Mittie said. “South Dakota had been a part of it, and Georgia Tech was most recent. I had followed Washington State and had followed the Wolfpack. They have a good quality team, and we know Kamie does a good job with them. I don’t know a whole lot about their team. I’m fixing to find out a lot about them here.

“I’m a little surprised it’s at North Carolina State. They usually try to avoid teams that have played in the regular season, but it doesn’t always play out that way.”

Mittie thanked the crowd before politely excusing himself to begin preparations for the Cougars. Mittie, who is 598-344 in his 30th season overall as a head coach, including 144-109 in eight seasons at K-State, has been a part of four NCAA Tournaments at K-State.

This marks the 17th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance for K-State, which has now been selected to the tournament three times in the last six seasons. In 2017, seventh-seed K-State defeated 10th-seed Drake 67-54 in the first round and suffered a 69-48 loss to second-seed Stanford in the second round in Manhattan. In 2019, ninth-seed K-State suffered an 84-54 loss to eighth-seed Michigan in a first-round game in Louisville, Kentucky.

K-State has advanced to the second round three times in its last four appearances and last reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2002.

K-State has incurred an impressive turnaround to land a spot in the NCAA Tournament this season. The Wildcats went 9-18 a year ago while feeling the effects of the COVID pandemic. Now they’ve won 19 games, which are tied for the third-most wins by Mittie in his eight seasons in Manhattan.

K-State’s 10-win improvement from the 2020-21 season is the largest win improvement in the Mittie era and tied for the second-largest win increase from one season to the next in program history. It is the largest since the school record of 14 was set in the 2001-02 season.

After falling short last season, the Wildcats set out to return to March this time around.

“We felt really good that we were solidly in the field,” Mittie said. “We had a lot of good wins. Until you see your name come up it is a little nerve wracking. We’ve had a good bounce-back year after a really COVID-impacted bad year. I’m pleased that we’ve done it with a relatively young group. I think our future is really bright.

“You know what? I’ve been in this long enough to let’s go see where we can make a run here, because you just never know. We have one of the best players in the country and a group that grinded through the last part of the season and this is a new season for us.”

Lee, a junior center and 2022 All-America and National Player of the Year candidate, is the first player in school history and the only player in the nation this year to register at least 675 points, 300 rebounds and 90 blocks.

“It’s so exciting that we laid that goal out and spoke that goal into existence and to achieve it is really great,” Lee said. “We knew we’d more than likely be in the tournament.”

Lee redshirted her freshman season when the Wildcats were a part of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, so this will be the first NCAA Tournament she’ll appear in as an active player.

She is joined by Sundell, a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team point guard, who is the only freshman in the nation with at least 170 assists and 40 3-pointers. Fellow freshman guard Brylee Glenn was a three-time Big 12 Freshman of the Week honoree. Sundell was also voted honorable mention All-Big 12.

“They’re great,” Lee said. “I love the freshmen as people and what they bring to the court. They want to win, and they always want to play hard.”

And now K-State prepares to hit the road as tournament dreams come true.

“I definitely feel like this is a new season,” Lee said. “We’ve definitely worked hard to get to this point, and we can’t forget all the hard work it took to get here. It’s like a new season. We have to go into it with that mindset.

“I remember (when K-State played at NC State) we knew it’d be a huge crowd. It’s such a great environment to play in. The gym is great, the crowd is great. That’s the biggest thing I remember. We all really liked playing there.”

It’s been an incredible learning experience for K-State, who have matured before the eyes of family and friends as the season has worn on. K-State experienced its latest growth moment on Friday in a closer-than-it-appeared 72-65 loss to No. 7 Texas in the Big 12 Tournament. The Wildcats trailed by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter before shifting into an extra gear and fell just short in their comeback.

They feel prepared for the madness in March.

“It’s unreal, really,” Sundell said. “Growing up just watching March Madness, all eyes are on you, so to be a part of it now as a freshman it’s going to be a real special experience.

“It’s just a dream to be able to come out and make it real and to represent Manhattan and K-State. It’s going to be really cool.”