Kansas State women’s basketball coach Jeff Mittie has a message for his team.
It’s 11 a.m. on Saturday and the Wildcats are about to begin their final practice before they play in the most anticipated game of the season -- a Sunday showdown against No. 1 Connecticut, the four-time defending national champion that had won 83 consecutive games.
Tickets sold out more than a week in advance, and the 12,528 fans that ultimately showed up at Bramlage Coliseum went down as the largest crowd to view a women’s basketball game anywhere this season.
K-State helped create excitement by winning its first eight games. The Wildcats appear to have their best team in years behind the senior leadership of center Breanna Lewis and guard Kindred Wesemann. But, for now, the ultimate test looms.
“This game is different than any other game we have ever played,” Mittie says. “That is just a fact. You are going to have more family than usual at the game, more fans than usual at the game and it’s against UConn. You have to block that out and focus on what you can control.”
Mittie fires up an inspirational audio clip inside the team’s meeting room to hammer home his point as the words “Focus on the Controllable” flash across a projection screen.
“Keep your mind right,” Mittie says when the clip ends. “You’ve done a great job managing things so far, but you have to keep it up. The only thing I want you thinking about in this game is next play, next play, next play. You can’t worry about a missed shot or a bad pass. You have to be in the present to play your best.”
He pauses and looks across the room. When he sees a group of focused faces, he claps his hands.
“All right,” he shouts. “Let’s have a good one.”
K-State players cheer and sprint out of the room with enough intensity to make you think they are ready to do the impossible.
Good as advertised
Beating Connecticut – heck, staying close with Connecticut – turns out to be as difficult as advertised.
As tipoff approached Sunday, UConn players seemed unfazed by the boisterous crowd that turned out to support K-State. And they didn’t flinch when the Wildcats took a quick 4-2 lead.
K-State made a point in practice to handle the noise by working on calling out plays as clearly as possible. Assistants used neon flash cards to signal assignments and every player shouted out the calls, but UConn needed no such preparation.
The Huskies turned up their play and scored 17 straight points. Mittie called a pair of timeouts to try and stop the bleeding, but nothing seemed to work.
This can happen to anyone against UConn. The Huskies led Depaul, ranked 15th at the time, 37-6 after 10 minutes earlier this season. The Wildcats did better than that, but still trailed 25-8 at the end of the first quarter.
It’s a scene Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has seen before.
“We used to say, ‘The circus is coming to town and everyone is coming to see what it looks like,’” he said of UConn playing on the road. “We would go in and they would have the biggest crowd ever, and, unfortunately, the home team sometimes wasn’t prepared for that and it would bother them more than it would affect us, because we are used to that. This is what we get when we are at home and when we go play good teams.”
All of a sudden, thoughts of an epic upset were replaced with fears of a monstrous defeat.
Can it be done? Can K-State beat Connecticut?
That’s the question optimistic outsiders asked about this game. Realistic fans wondered if the Wildcats could keep the game close.
Auriemma and his juggernaut roster have a special kind of mystique that affects the opposition this way. Connecticut dominates women’s basketball like no other college team dominates its sport. Not even Alabama football wins as much.
Forward Eternati Willock said merely playing against UConn was a childhood dream and compared the challenge of winning to climbing a mountain.
Every team that goes against the Huskies does so dreaming of victory while also fearing a beat down. UConn smoked K-State 97-57 last season and destroyed Depaul 91-46 this season.
“Some of their scores,” Mittie says, “are scary.”
How do you prepare a team for the possibility of such extremes?
Mittie allowed the Eagle access to practices and meetings last week as he grappled with the answer. Should he downplay the crowd and the opponent? Should he shine the brightest spotlight possible on them?
Turns out, he hardly mentioned those aspects of the game at all.
K-State players didn’t say but a few words about the Huskies’ winning streak during their three practices leading up to the game. They broke huddles by saying “Cats” and stayed loose as if they were about to play Iowa State.
This was best illustrated in the moments before a Friday afternoon video session. Players in the front row joked about the braids in their hair until Mittie interrupted with fake outrage.
“You’re breaking one of my three rules,” Mittie said. “No talking about hair in here, ever.”
The players laughed.
“We can’t talk about hair in here?” one asks.
“I’ve never heard of that rule,” another says. “What are your other two?”
“No talk about hair or shoes,” Mittie says through laughter, “I guess the third is no makeup.”
The Wildcats also kept things relaxed in practice. While scrimmaging against a group of male K-State students on Saturday morning, Mittie instructed players to try and shoot over Connecticut center Natalie Butler.
“We need to take shots against her,” Mittie said. “Shots, shots, shots … Yes, I said it three times.”
Players laughed and began singing the chorus of the LMFAO song “shots.” Mittie chuckled right along with them.
Helping your teammate
Mittie didn’t say it to his players, but he thought K-State needed to play its best possible game just to compete in this game.
“You have to come out and execute and be at your highest level for 40 minutes,” Mittie said. “That’s the challenge. Can we be at the highest level we have been all year for 40 minutes? If you have a letdown at any point in there that’s where UConn can run away from you.”
He kept a more positive approach with players, because he wanted their focus elsewhere.
“The only thing I want them thinking is, ‘How can I help a teammate play better?’” Mittie says. “It’s not about what you can do to play well. It’s about what you can do to help your teammate play well. That has been the core of our program. We have helped each other play better and practice better. My message is no different for this game.”
Mittie was pleased with all three of K-State’s practices for Connecticut, calling them “the most focused of the season.”
His final words with players Saturday were simple.
“Great job the last two days,” he said. “Let’s get ready to go have some fun.”
Samuelson the sharpshooter
Where is 33?
That’s the question K-State associate head coach Brian Ostermann wanted his players to ask themselves every second Connecticut sharpshooter Katie Lou Samuelson, who wears No. 33, was on the court Sunday.
“We have to contest her shots,” he said during Saturday’s practice. “And I mean every single one of them. She is a great shooter and we have to defend the outside against her. Get out and play high against her.”
He also warned about Kia Nurse, another shooting guard. The Wildcats couldn’t let the Huskies try and beat them from three-point range.
“If they make contested shots, they make contested shots,” Ostermann said. “But if they make open shots that is on us. Don’t worry about getting beat on the bounce. We have the best center (Lewis) in the country to defend down low.”
Ostermann’s scouting report is spot on, and K-State players stretched their zone defense as he suggests in practice, but defending Samuelson and Connecticut’s quick ball movement, which produced 30 field goals and 24 assists, on Sunday was a different story.
The Huskies found Samuelson open 13 times from deep, and she connected on six attempts. She was at her best in the first half, making five of eight.
“Every time she shoots,” Auriemma said, “I feel like it’s going in.”
Samuelson finished with a game-high 26 points and ran off the court with young fans chanting her name.
“They move the ball better than anybody in the country,” Mittie said, “and Samuelson moves without the ball. They do a great job getting the ball to her and she has a high release. She is a great shooter.”
Samuelson is but an example of why it is so hard to play Connecticut. Even when you make a good play you might not get rewarded.
During a Friday video session, Mittie showed footage of Connecticut forwards jumping on pump fakes. He shared a clip in which Notre Dame created a driving lane by faking a shot at the top of the key and driving past UConn forward Napheesa Collier.
“This is a great way to attack their defense,” Mittie said.
As he plays the video again, however, Collier recovers in time to block the Notre Dame shot.
After a disappointing start, K-State got things going.
Wesemann, a senior guard, made a trio of three-pointers in the first half to cut into the 17-point deficit and Lewis, a senior center, played one of her better games, finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
Afterward, Auriemma described Lewis as a “much-improved player” who “overpowered us.”
Karyla Middlebrook also came up big with 11 points. By halftime, K-State pulled to within 45-31 and had two chances in the third quarter to make it a single-digit game after a Kaylee Page three-pointer made it 51-40.
K-State got stops on Connecticut’s next two possessions and moved the ball to within inches of the basket on offense. But Lewis and Shaelyn Martin missed layups.
Still, K-State’s play worried Auriemma enough to call a timeout. The Wildcats lost 75-58, but they matched the Huskies 50-50 over the final three quarters.
“I was proud of our group,” Mittie said. “We fought back hard.”
Added Lewis: “I see so much potential as a team. Each game we are willing to learn from our mistakes and just come in and play hard. I am really proud of our team and I am excited for the season.”
A good loss
Mittie doesn’t believe in the concept of a good loss, but if he did this would be it.
K-State held its own for 30 minutes against the nation’s best team and did so in front of a record crowd that seemed pleased with the results. Fans roared with approval as the Wildcats chipped away at UConn’s lead, and they stayed until the end.
“I could feel the excitement as we were walking in the building and seeing the line outside as we drove up,” Auriemma said. “It is a great place to play basketball. It really is.”
The game also served as a recruiting boon. Mittie estimated K-State hosted 140 visitors this weekend.
He didn’t place internal attention on the game, but everyone else did.
“I wanted to bring an event to this part of the country that was unique and different,” Mittie said. “I really thought we could achieve a sellout. I wanted to do it early in my tenure here and there is no one better to do it with than UConn.
“For basketball, it is hard to get good crowds in November and December. I am talking about women’s crowds, but you could talk about men’s crowds, too. I’m betting this crowd will be larger than about half the men’s games that are played this weekend. It is a pretty big accomplishment that our fans have responded this way. These are the type of games people can find out about you.”
UConn won its 84th straight game and K-State suffered its first loss, but it was hard to think about any of that when it was over.
“There were a lot of positives out of today,” Mittie said. “I wanted to win this game. I wanted to find a way and I believed that we could find a way to pull the upset. I believed in the plan we put together to do that, but there was also a part of me that said, ‘You know what, we won a lot of things before this.’
“Selling this game out nine days in advance and doing those types of things for our program and women’s college basketball, I think that is pretty good.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
CONNECTICUT (9-0): Samuelson 10-21 0-0 26, Collier 10-15 2-3 22, Nurse 4-7 3-4 13, Dangerfield 3-9 0-0 6, Williams 2-8 2-3 6, Butler 1-1 0-0 2, Bent 0-0 0-0 0, Irwin 0-0 0-0 0, Lawlor 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 30-61 7-10 75.
KANSAS ST. (9-1): Lewis 9-14 0-0 18, Middlebrook 3-6 5-6 11, Wesemann 3-10 0-0 9, Goth 3-4 1-2 7, Page 1-5 2-2 5, Martin 1-6 0-0 2, Page 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 0-2 2-2 2, Willock 1-5 0-1 2, Brooks 0-1 0-0 0, Sheble 0-1 0-0 0, Thomson 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 22-55 10-13 58.
3-Point Goals—UConn 8-23 (Samuelson 6-13, Nurse 2-4, Collier 0-1, Dangerfield 0-5), Kansas St. 4-12 (Wesemann 3-6, Page 1-5, Middlebrook 0-1). Assists—UConn 24 (Dangerfield 5), Kansas St. 13 (Martin 3). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UConn 35 (Williams 10), Kansas St. 28 (Lewis 7). Total Fouls—UConn 13, Kansas St. 12. A—12,528.