Nichols, Jayhawks claim 58-55 win in dramatic Sunflower Showdown

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World

Kansas guard S'Mya Nichols celebrates making a basket against Kansas State on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

The Kansas women’s basketball team stunned its rival at Allen Fieldhouse Sunday afternoon, claiming a dramatic 58-55 victory over 10th-ranked Kansas State and significantly boosting its NCAA Tournament hopes in the process.

“It puts us a step closer,” guard Holly Kersgieter said about the Jayhawks’ tournament chances. “It’s always in the back of our mind, but I think for us today, we were just worried about getting a win at home against K-State. That’s just the kind of tunnel vision that this game is.”

Freshman guard S’Mya Nichols led the Jayhawks with her sixth 20-plus-point game on 8-for-16 shooting, while center Taiyanna Jackson added 11 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks in 28 minutes of play. The Jayhawks held Jackson’s counterpart, K-State’s standout center Ayoka Lee, to 14 points on 7-for-21 shooting and 11 rebounds in her 30 minutes on the floor.

The victory came in front of a crowd of 9,007, by far Kansas’ biggest attendance of the season and its largest crowd for a regular-season game in 22 years.

Kersgieter described the game environment as “not even close” to another game she’s experienced at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Even though the attendance was technically less than the (WNIT), in my head the first thought was ‘This is the best memory that I have in Allen Fieldhouse,'” she said.

KU (16-11, 9-7 Big 12 Conference) took a 55-52 lead on a crafty drive by Nichols with two minutes to go in the game, then secured back-to-back big defensive rebounds which combined with three made free throws on the other end by Kersgieter seemed to have sealed the deal for Kansas, as it took a 58-52 lead with 24 seconds left. But Taryn Sides made a 3-pointer to get the game within three, and a turnover by Kansas led to a last-second heave by Sides that barely banked out, getting Kansas a narrow victory.

“It was too far, it was too rushed, it was a great setup … but I was like ‘We worked too hard for this to fall right now,'” Kersgieter said of the last-second shot. “I almost stole it too, so I would have been personally just so mad. Then I didn’t really realize the game was over, then the buzzer went off, and I was like ‘Ah, thank God, we’re done.'”

The Jayhawks started off quickly, yet did so while taking their time to set up options on offense, something head coach Brandon Schneider had pointed out earlier in the week they really struggled to do in a 69-58 loss in Manhattan on Jan. 20. But after going up 17-6, the Jayhawks sputtered to the end of the first quarter, holding a 19-15 lead. Jackson held her own on the defensive end, a key component entering today’s game, holding Lee to only four points in the first period. Nichols led the Jayhawks offensively, tallying nine points in the quarter while Kansas’ bench once again struggled to get involved.

Following a hot start, Kansas reverted back to the version of itself from January’s Sunflower Showdown, rushing the offense and getting into foul trouble, with Danai Papadapoulou, Zsófia Telegdy and Paris Gaines all coming in at the post position in the second quarter. The Wildcats took advantage of the flustered Jayhawks, going on an 11-3 run to start the period and taking a 28-22 lead after once being down 11 points.

Skyler Gill ended Kansas’ four-minute scoring drought with a crafty drive inside and also became the Jayhawks’ first bench player to score in the game.

“We haven’t gotten a lot of scoring off the bench, and I credit Skyler for kind of sensing, ‘Hey, this is not going our way right now,’ and for stepping up and making two big plays at important times,” Schneider said.

The Kansas defense stood up after the run, holding the Wildcats to only five points in the second half of the quarter, as the Jayhawks trailed just 30-28 heading into halftime.

Nichols remained the Jayhawks’ leading scorer in the half, with all nine of her points coming in the first period of action, while Papadapoulou led the way on the boards with six rebounds in her eight minutes of playing time. Schneider remained conservative with his usage of Jackson, leaving her on the bench for the entirety of the second quarter after she picked up her second foul.

“In those situations, you’re just trying to get to halftime at or near even so you don’t have to bring Jackson back in,” Schneider later explained.

Lee led the Wildcats with eight points apiece, tied with Sides, who came off the bench.

After a second quarter filled with non-starters and no standout scorer, Nichols and Jackson returned to form in the third, combining for 11 of Kansas’ 14 points in the period. Returning to action, Jackson came out with less aggression in the second half, allowing Lee to score early. But Jackson responded on the next possession with a clean block that sent Lee to the floor, before turning around and grabbing her first points since the 2:13 mark of the first quarter.

The Jayhawks still trailed 37-30 before Nichols nabbed three straight mid-range jumpers to help make it a three-point game, before Mayberry’s second 3-pointer of the game tied it at 39. The early-quarter comeback put the Jayhawks down a manageable 43-42 heading to the final period of action.

The fourth got off to a slow start, with the Wildcats trading off buckets with Kansas’ free throws to keep it even at 45-45. The Jayhawks fell into a 49-45 hole off back-to-back easy layups.

Three straight buckets by Kersgieter, Jackson and Nichols and two stops forced a timeout by Kansas State with the game tied at 51. Out of the timeout, another miss by Lee followed by a midrange jumper as the shot clock expired by Kersgieter gave Kansas a two-point lead. Nichols juked Lee down low, with two fake-outs that gave her an easy twirling layup, putting the Jayhawks ahead 55-52.

“It came really easy,” Nichols said of the game-deciding shot. “I have a whole bunch of countermoves, and she happened to fall for every one of them.”

KU led the rest of the way as despite Sides’ late heroics it earned a 58-55 victory.

“Coming off a road loss (at Baylor), we didn’t let that linger,” Kersgieter said. “We were eyes forward ever since that game ended, and we just had a lot of fun today.”

After January’s matchup in Manhattan featured small ball with both Lee and Jackson missing from action, the two bigs combined for 25 points and 18 rebounds along with 11 blocks, showing a national audience some of the best post play in the NCAA.

“This conference has two of the best bigs in the country… Good players want to play against other good players and they want to challenge themselves,” Schneider said.

“Kansas outplayed us down the stretch … they executed their stuff better than we did, they did a real good job of disrupting and we didn’t play with as much poise as we needed to play with,” Kansas State head coach Jeff Mittie said after the game, emphasizing his praise for Nichols’ poise and control down the stretch as a freshman.

The top-10 rivalry win is massively significant for a Kansas team that is sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament with two games to play, but the Jayhawks are keeping that in the back of their minds as they look to finish out the season strong.

The next step will come when Kansas travels to face Big 12 newcomer UCF on Wednesday at 5 p.m. Central Time. The game will be televised on ESPN+.


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