Nichols’ performance, Fieldhouse crowd key to Sunflower Showdown upset

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World

A young fan cheers on the Jayhawks during the game against Kansas State Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

In a Sunflower Showdown positioned at a crucial juncture of the Jayhawks’ season, Kansas was given an extra push en route to its 58-55 victory by the consistent performance of freshman standout S’Mya Nichols.

“It’s a lot of pressure … especially for a freshman … but even three or four games (into the season) we knew what type of player she was and how she was going to perform,” teammate Holly Kersgieter said. “In games like today, we weren’t even worried about her. She’s going to go out there and do what she does, and she’s great.”

Throughout the season, head coach Brandon Schneider has consistently taken the time to highlight not only Nichols’ skills as a player but also her mental sophistication while on the court.

“We knew exactly what we were getting from her as a player in terms of her skill level and her versatility, but until you start working with a player, the poise and composure and that side of it, I think she is far beyond her years of experience,” he said.

Nichols’ skills and maturity served her well on Sunday, as she scored six points, along with Kersgieter’s seven, in the fourth quarter, including a few crucial shots down the stretch to maintain Kansas’ lead.

“Their defense is a really good gap defense, so I took any opportunity that I could get to get downhill because that’s honestly what I’m best at,” Nichols said, as she thrived from midrange. “(Center Ayoka Lee) was sitting in the middle, so there was nowhere else I could go. That was all I had.”

A pivotal moment for Nichols came with two minutes left, as Kansas led 53-52. She surveyed her options and once again took the ball up the middle of the lane as she so often did in the matchup. She got to the feet of Kansas State’s 6-foot-6 star Lee, and, as Nichols put it, put on every nearly move she had, “and she happened to fall for every one.”

That was the final time that Kansas took the lead, after a pair of defensive rebounds by Taiyanna Jackson and three made free throws by Kersgieter put the game finally out of reach.

“My teammates (are) what keep me calm. Because I’m allowed to play bad, I’m allowed to make mistakes, and they are forgiving and accepting of me,” Nichols said, though she certainly didn’t play bad on Sunday. “I feel like their opinions of me are the only ones that should matter.”

“S’Mya had a great stretch for them on the midrange game, when they made their push and she was making baskets right around that 15-foot range,” said Kansas State head coach Jeff Mittie. “For a freshman to be making those kinds of shots in this game in that moment, it shows a lot of poise and a lot of presence.”

Largest regular-season women’s basketball crowd since 2002 witnesses upset

Along with Nichols’ 20-point performance on 8-for-16 shooting, which counted for her sixth game of the season with at least 20 points, the Jayhawks had the help of a crowd 9,007 strong, which was the fourth-largest home crowd for a women’s game in school history.

“Whether you’re playing for a championship or whatever it is, having a home rivalry game this packed against a top-10 team at a crucial moment in the season, I thought to myself, ‘This is the best moment I’ve had,'” Kersgieter said. “And that’s all it takes.”

She described it as “not even close” to anything else she’d experienced in her nearly five years playing in the Phog.

“I did not expect it, I don’t think our team expected it to be that crowded,” she said. “The turnout was great, and that roar you get late in the game when you go on a run, we don’t get that a lot. You know, we’re girls.”

The team is averaging just over 3,000 in attendance per game this season, meaning Sunday’s top-10 rivalry matchup was about triple their usual crowd for this year.

“We just had a lot of fun today. Every huddle it was ‘We’re tired, we’re in pain, but we’re in it together,'” Kersgieter said. “It was just a pick-me-up fight-back moment, and we were just having fun out there.”

Schneider also labeled Sunday’s Showdown as his best memory in Allen Fieldhouse in the nearly nine seasons he’s spent with the Jayhawks, as both he and the players recognized the extra push such a crowd provided them in a critical and back-and-forth matchup.

“There’s a lot of weight on young people in rivalry games like this. They don’t want to let their families down, their teammates down, the fan base down, so I think there’s a little bit of added pressure,” he said. “And so it’s great when you’re on the right side of it to celebrate.”

Schneider and Kersgieter both reminisced on last season’s Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship game played at Allen Fieldhouse that saw a crowd of 11,701 but recognized that this win at this point in the season means something different for a team on the bubble of a trip to March Madness.

“Obviously the NIT championship last year was great, but this team is fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth,” Schneider said. “And this is a top-10 win late (in) the year, so it’s one of those that you add to the resume and hopefully (it) solidifies the opportunity to compete (in the Tournament) here in a couple of weeks.”

The Jayhawks will continue on this push for a tournament bid for two more regular season games, starting with their last road game of the season on Wednesday against UCF before wrapping it up with a senior night celebration in Lawrence on Saturday against Oklahoma.


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