KU women will battle Baylor, Kansas State in days ahead as they angle for postseason positioning

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas guard Wyvette Mayberry drives to the basket Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

The Kansas women’s basketball team resuscitated its season with a landmark victory over Baylor last month. To continue its upward trajectory and build toward a potential NCAA Tournament berth, it will need to take down the Bears once again.

After dropping several hard-fought nonconference games on the road, the Jayhawks — who had faced sky-high preseason expectations after adding freshman S’Mya Nichols to last year’s Women’s National Invitation Tournament champions — had opened their league schedule in disappointing fashion, losing three straight to West Virginia, Iowa State and Texas Tech by a combined 42 points.

When then-No. 4 Baylor came to town on Jan. 10, though, it was as if KU had flipped a switch. The Jayhawks ran the previously unbeaten Bears out of Allen Fieldhouse with an 87-66 upset victory. Taiyanna Jackson tallied 27 points and grabbed 19 rebounds with three blocks, Nichols scored 22 more and KU held BU to 36.5% shooting and just 20% from beyond the arc.

That game didn’t totally put the Jayhawks back on the right track, as they still lost a pair of road games to high-ranked opponents. But by late January, they were rounding into form, and following Saturday’s victory at BYU have now won five straight to improve to 15-10 overall, 8-6 in Big 12 Conference play. Their last loss was on the road at league-leading Oklahoma, a game in which they led with 3:14 to go but lost 60-55 thanks to a game-ending 9-2 run.

Yet they are still on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament picture. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has the Jayhawks as the third team in his “first four out” category as of Tuesday morning, a one-spot improvement from Creme’s previous update but generally a realm in which they have hovered for a while despite piling up wins against some of the Big 12’s lesser foes.

That’s where this Wednesday’s game against now-No. 24 Baylor at 7 p.m. at the Bears’ brand new Foster Pavilion, comes in. It kicks off a pivotal, challenging stretch to conclude the regular season that also features battles with No. 10 Kansas State in Lawrence on Sunday, last-place UCF on the road Feb. 28 (though the Knights have played nearly everyone close of late) and No. 23 Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse on March 2.

Only those four games, plus the Big 12 tournament, remain as the Jayhawks look to make their case for a return to the Big Dance.

Head coach Brandon Schneider earned his first NCAA Tournament berth at Kansas following the 2021-22 season, but the following year KU narrowly missed out on qualification and was consigned to the WNIT — which it won.

Baylor, for its part, was a perennial power and won three national titles under Kim Mulkey. Nicki Collen has not yet reached those heights in her three seasons but has the Bears still projected as a No. 6 seed this season with a record of 19-6 (8-6 Big 12, in a tie with KU).

They are just 5-5 since losing to Kansas, though they did recently pick up a resounding 61-32 victory over Texas Tech in which they forced 29 turnovers and outrebounded the Red Raiders 42-26.

They still rank fourth in the conference in each of scoring offense, scoring defense and total team rebounds. Baylor has good ball movement, too, with one of the top marks in the country at 19.4 assists per game, and a well-rounded starting lineup featuring the likes of guards Sarah Andrews (11.4 points, 3.9 assists per game) and Darianna Littlepage-Buggs (11.0 points, 7.2 rebounds) and forward Dre’Una Edwards (11.9 points, 6.5 rebounds). It just hasn’t all come together in one consistent stretch this season, and the Bears will look to avoid a letdown after dominating Tech.

KU will then return to Lawrence following the Baylor game for the Sunflower Showdown against Kansas State in a rare Sunday afternoon matchup, one that will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

The Wildcats, who at one point matched their best ranking in program history this season by moving to No. 2, won their previous matchup against the Jayhawks 69-58 in Manhattan. That game was marred by the absence of two dominant centers in KU’s Jackson (who left early after getting hit in the face) and K-State’s Ayoka Lee (who was out from the start with an ankle injury that required surgery).

Both Jackson and Lee should be back Sunday, although Lee missed the Wildcats’ narrow 60-58 win over UCF due to a sprained ankle (the other ankle) — her status for West Virginia on Wednesday is day-to-day. In her injury-marred season, Lee is averaging 19.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks to Jackson’s 12.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.

K-State has slid a bit since its peak, at one point losing three of four games by a combined 13 points, but still ranks in the top 10.

In the previous matchup against KU, the Wildcats were led by guard Serena Sundell’s 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists, plus 15 additional points from key bench contributor Zyanna Walker. KU got as close as one possession with four minutes to go at Bramlage Coliseum before allowing its rival to pull away late.

Besides Sundell, guards Gabby Gregory and the twins Brylee and Jaelyn Glenn give K-State an array of options on the perimeter around Lee.


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.