Preview: Crucial late-season Sunflower Showdown awaits Kansas women’s basketball

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

Kansas head coach Brandon Schneider calls out a play against Houston Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

With three games left to play in the regular season, the Jayhawks still have plenty to play for. The Kansas women’s basketball team currently ranks sixth in the Big 12 Conference with an 8-7 conference record and moved up to second in ESPN Bracketology’s first four out in its latest release Friday.

“As you evaluate teams under consideration, there’s going to be a lot of Power Five teams that finish right around .500,” said head coach Brandon Schneider. “If you can get to 10-8 in our league, I think you’re a lock. I think 9-9 probably still gives you a chance, just because there’s so many conferences out there that there’s a lot of parity.”

The Jayhawks will be aiming for this 10-8 mark at the least as they go into the Big 12 tournament beginning March 7 in Kansas City — and their first test in this late stretch is a rivalry rematch at home.

Sunday’s Sunflower Showdown — set for 1 p.m., to be televised on ESPN2 — will provide a chance for Kansas to get redemption for a 69-58 loss in Manhattan in late January and earn a signature win that would greatly help their chances of making it into the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s just a thing,” said super-senior Holly Kersgieter. “A rivalry game is different than other games, especially when you’re doing it at home. I remember the first go-around, it’s almost a little nerve-wracking because you’re at their place … and there’s kind of this extra pressure. So now that we have the opportunity to redeem ourselves at our place, they’re even more excited for it.”

While the team has spent the back half of the week looking forward to a rematch against its biggest rival, the game also just stands as another chance for the Jayhawks to prove themselves late in a somewhat erratic season.

“The competitiveness of the Big 12, that’s every day, every game is a new opportunity… They have a lot to play for, we have a lot to play for,” Kersgieter said. “It’s kind of different stakes at hand for this game, and there’s a lot on the line for it.”

She continued: “We’re excited. It was the first thing we talked about … after Baylor (a 69-61 road loss on Wednesday) in the locker room. It was ‘Man, that didn’t go the way we wanted, but we have an opportunity Sunday to do something fun…’ For us, it’s especially our last rivalry game, so regardless of what happens … we’re just excited to have one more game to go at it, especially at home.”

This matchup will look plenty different than the first game in Manhattan, as both teams will have their star post players back who did not play in the first Showdown (Taiyanna Jackson due to a mouth injury suffered in the first quarter and Ayoka Lee because of recovery from ankle surgery).

“You know, Lee didn’t play at all, Jackson played five minutes, (guard Wyvette) Mayberry played 22 minutes,” Schneider said. “I think that it could look quite different.”

Lee is averaging over 20 points and eight rebounds a game and is coming off a 34-point performance in an overtime win against No. 22 West Virginia on Wednesday. Jackson has been uncharacteristically quiet during the Jayhawks’ two-game road trip over the past week, but is averaging almost 13 points and 10 rebounds a game.

“I think (Jackson’s) biggest challenge on Sunday is to defend Lee and try to make it as hard as possible on her to earn baskets and rebound,” Schneider said. “Lee affects the game on both ends way more than people give her credit for.”

With Jackson’s subdued role in the last pair of games, guards S’Mya Nichols and Zakiyah Franklin stepped up on the offensive end for Kansas, as Franklin notched a new career high (23 points) against BYU last Saturday and Nichols matched a career high with 23 points of her own against Baylor.

Franklin’s upgraded performance comes a year after she led the Jayhawks in scoring, but now averages about 11 points per game. She said that being more aggressive has really helped her over the past string of games: “Whether that’s just creating my own shot or creating for others. So (it’s) that and obviously just the sense of urgency that we have now, is just important.”

Nichols, Franklin and Jackson will be key in Sunday’s Showdown, as Nichols’ decision-making, Franklin’s leadership, and Jackson’s defense have consistently been determining factors in Kansas’ wins this year.

While the Wildcats have a star in Lee, the Jayhawks have the advantage of flexibility that has benefited them the entire year, as players shift across multiple positions and Kansas has a different leading scorer almost every night. The versatility this year has been the direct result of good team chemistry, with four super-seniors returning to the starting lineup along with the addition of Nichols.

“We’re jelling together, we’re finding a way to do it. And I think it’s more important now than ever,” Franklin said. “We’re taking it one game at a time … so we’re just trying to do the right things and if we fail in one area, not let it boil over into another area.”

“I think that’s just the joy about all of it is no matter what happens, as long as there’s one more game in front of you, you’ve just got to look forward to that one,” Kersgieter added.


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