Matt Tait: Motivated KU women proving they’re playing in the wrong tournament and having fun doing it
One of the hardest things to do in sports is to play hard in a game they tell you doesn’t matter.
Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, it was clear that no one told the Kansas women’s basketball team that the WNIT didn’t matter, and the Jayhawks rolled past Missouri, 75-47 in the second round.
With the entire team devastated by being left out of the NCAA Tournament just eight days earlier, KU coach Brandon Schneider said after Monday’s win that he was genuinely worried about convincing his players that fighting and continuing to give it their all was the right thing to do and would be worth it.
“Just because of how I felt,” Schneider admitted.
But after a slow start in the opening half of last week’s Round 1 win over Western Kentucky, the Jayhawks (21-11) switched it into high gear to win that game and kept it going on Monday.
Next up, the Jayhawks will play host to Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Round 3, and every chance this team gets to play from here on out is another chance to prove that they’re playing in the wrong tournament.
“We all decided that if we’re going to play, it’s two feet in; we’re going to play to win,” junior guard Chandler Prater said Monday night. “It’s no backing down, it’s no feeling sorry for yourself. It’s all about basketball. We came here to play.”
Make no mistake about it; the team wearing white on Monday night is an NCAA Tournament team. They just weren’t invited to the Big Dance.
But that was an oversight by the selection committee, which made its decision to exclude Kansas by relying far too much on one bad night instead of considering the Jayhawks’ entire body of work.
With two first-team all-Big 12 picks, meaningful and talented experience and a team that managed to go 9-9 in the Big 12 despite rarely playing with its opening-night starting lineup, the Jayhawks were among the best 68 teams in the country this season, healthy or not.
It certainly looked that way on Monday night, when the Jayhawks whipped a Missouri team that had won 18 games, including six in the SEC. The Tigers finished the regular season with a NET ranking of No. 56. KU’s NET ranking on Selection Sunday was No. 37, and the 19-spot difference was easy to spot on Monday night.
KU dominated from start to finish, holding Mizzou scoreless for the first 6:29 of the game and outscoring the visitors 40-19 in the second and third quarters combined. You don’t do that by not caring.
Holly Kersgieter played with her usual edge. Zakiyah Franklin was always ready to shoot and then made seven of nine shots when she did, including five of six from 3-point range. Wyvette Mayberry scored 16 points and dished seven assists, refusing to let the Tigers’ guards get comfortable. And Taiyanna Jackson finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and two very memorable and-one celebrations.
The first, which came in the first half, featured her signaling that the bucket counted as she was still falling down. The second, which came late in the game, had her spinning around in the lane like a kid playing in a sandbox, complete with the huge smile.
And then there was Prater. Moments after having a rebound taken away from her from behind by a Missouri player, Prater ran through a pass intended for Lauren Hansen and raced the other way for a left-handed layup that gave the Jayhawks a 37-23 lead.
Before the ball even hit the floor, Prater turned around to her teammates and flashed a “I-told-you-I-had-it-under-control” grin.
Later, after an intentional foul following a mix-up on Mizzou’s Hayley Frank, Prater hit two free throws to give KU a 75-47 advantage. On the Tigers’ final possession, a meaningless possession if ever there were one, the Tigers worked the ball around but couldn’t get a shot. Finally, with the ball in 43’s hands and Prater guarding her, the KU junior slapped the ball away, refusing to give up even that.
Even the KU crowd cared a great deal on Monday. Those who are there night in and night out for this team always do. But Monday’s crowd was both bigger and louder than those that came before it. And the crowd for Thursday will be even better.
“It was really heartbreaking,” Prater said of missing out on the NCAA Tournament. “But I’m just so grateful for this opportunity to play in front our fans and get a chance to show Jayhawk nation that we’ve still got more to come. We’re not quitting and we’re ready to finish out.”
Added Jackson: “The NIT is not the NCAA Tournament, but it still has a lot of great teams and everybody is still playing to win a championship and we have a chance to win a championship.”
Yes, they do.