RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Washington State put Ayoka Lee at the top of its scouting report.
It was apparent early on in the No. 8 Cougars’ clash with No. 9 Kansas State that the emphasis was on making things difficult for the 6-foot-6 center.
But even after making just one field goal in the first half, and her Wildcats trailing at intermission, Lee never lost focus.
“That was definitely just a struggle in the first half,” Lee said. “Things just opened up more as we continued to play together. This was kind of a grind-through-it game. We kept working hard.”
Lee finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds as Kansas State overcame a frustrating defensive scheme from Washington State and won 50-40 in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
A second-team AP All-America selection, Lee rallied in the second half to lead the Wildcats (20-11) to their first tournament victory since 2017. Brylee Glenn added 14 points for Kansas State.
Washington State (19-11) was powered by Charlisse Leger-Walker’s 20 points on offense. Ula Motuga grabbed 14 rebounds and scored five points.
Defensively, the Cougars used a total-team effort in an attempt to stifle Lee and disrupt Kansas State. Early on, it worked. Washington State led by as many as nine points in the first half and held Lee to just six points in the first 20 minutes.
“We struggled getting the ball to Lee, and she struggled finishing early in this game,” Wildcats coach Jeff Mittie said. “But we kept our focus. When shots weren’t falling, we dug deep today.”
The Wildcats got their offense humming in the second half, breaking off runs of 12-1 and 8-2 to erase the deficit. Key in those runs were free throw shooting, as Kansas State knocked down 15 of 16 from the charity stripe in the second half.
Kansas State was opportunistic too, and turned 18 Washington State turnovers into 13 points.
“I’m just really sad and disappointed in how we played,” Cougars coach Kamie Ethridge said. “K-State was awesome in the second half, made great adjustments and just really caught us standing still.”
The Wildcats didn’t allow the Cougars to make a field goal in the final five minutes of the game.
“Defensively, I liked what I saw,” Mittie said. “And we’re moving on because of it.”
Kansas State: Lee wound up finishing with close to her scoring average of 22.4 points per-game. She was freed up a bit after the Wildcats got back-to-back three-pointers to fall in the second half. Still, the Wildcats will have to shoot sharper overall if they want to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. Their field goal percentage of 26.4% on Saturday was their second-worst of the season.
Washington State: The Cougars couldn’t sustain their airtight defensive play that mucked up the first half. Washington State is still searching for its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory in program history. Leger-Walker’s older sister Krystal is out of eligibility, but Charlisse and the rest of the Cougars starters are expected to return next season.
“I really want to believe that our foundation is really solid,” Ethridge said. “I love the fact that we’re still pretty young and that we have everybody coming back, and our challenge for that group is to consistently get better.”
STAT OF THE DAY
Kansas State held Washington State to just three makes from behind the arc. That’s tied for the least amount of 3-pointers the Cougars have made in a single game this season, and the Cougars’ 13.6% shooting percentage from deep was their second worst of the season.
“I thought we had a good feel for where they were trying to get their 3’s,” Mittie said. “One of the things we wanted to do was running them off the 3-point line. I thought we made them shot-fake and step-aside on some plays. We were committed to guarding the 3.”
The Wildcats will face No. 1 N.C. State on Monday in Raleigh.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25