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Without injured star, K-State continues its climb to program-best No. 2 in AP Top 25


MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — It would take some searching anywhere beyond the Flint Hills of central Kansas to find anybody who thought the Kansas State women's basketball program would become a top-10 mainstay this season.

Might need even more luck to find someone who would have predicted this: After the Wildcats lost All-American forward Ayoka Lee to an ankle injury, which will keep her out about three more weeks, they have kept on winning.

With their hard-nosed victory over Big 12 newcomer BYU over the weekend, Kansas State climbed to No. 2 in the latest AP Top 25, matching the best ranking in school history. The Wildcats are the first team in the history of the poll to go from unranked in the preseason to No. 2 at any point, according to Stats Perform.

The Wildcats are riding a 14-game winning streak since their lone loss to Caitlin Clark and No. 3 Iowa that likewise ties a school record, and could be considered 15 straight if a forfeit from TCU for not having enough players is included in the tally.

“I think everybody has had to step up their game in ways that maybe we weren't doing before,” said fifth-year senior Gabby Gregory, the Wildcats' third-leading scorer, and one of the spark plugs for a team that was relegated to the NIT last year.

The 6-foot-6 Lee, a cornerstone both offensively and defensively, missed that entire season with a knee injury.

“Obviously it's shifted the way we play slightly, and I think we've all had to focus in defensively helping in the post, rebounding, and then offensively, we're not able to rely on (Lee) for points inside,” Gregory said of her teammate's latest injury. “We've had to move the ball, get more drives downhill, shots. I think it's really just having to step up our game.”

It helps that the Wildcats (20-1, 9-0), who visit Oklahoma on Wednesday night, are among the deepest teams in the nation. They have eight players averaging at least 15 minutes a game, and seven of them are averaging at least six points.

“We're just a hardworking team,” Kansas State guard Jaelyn Glenn said.

Yet it's hard to overstate just how much Lee has meant to the Wildcats.

The three-time All-Big 12 forward set the NCAA single-game scoring record with 61 points in a 94-65 win over the Sooners a couple of years ago, and she is fourth in school history in scoring and second in rebounds. Lee's ability to patrol the paint has made Kansas State a nightmare to score against, and her leadership on a veteran team is almost unrivaled.

So when the school announced Jan. 19 that she had undergone surgery to repair a small fracture in her ankle, and would miss a month or so, there was cause for concern — especially given how tough the Big 12 has turned out to be this season.

But the Wildcats have managed to overcome the adversity. They beat rival Kansas in their first game without Lee, then knocked off No. 13 Baylor on the road, before rallying from a halftime deficit to beat BYU Saturday.

Gisela Sanchez scored 18 points against the Cougars. Serena Sundell had 14 with a season-high eight assists.

“We knew Ayoka's 15 or 20 touches were going to be distributed, so we needed to get more scoring from everybody, and you're seeing that,” said Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie, whose team is relishing the best start in school history.

“The benefit of this is when Lee comes back,” Mittie continued, “we can have a much stronger, deeper team.”

If her prognosis is correct, Lee would be back about the time Kansas State plays No. 23 West Virginia on Feb. 21. That would mean navigating a tough stretch coming up: After the Wildcats play the Sooners on the road, they visit No. 12 Texas, then play Oklahoma State and visit Iowa State before wrapping up the run with a game against UCF.

It's a daunting road, to be sure, but one that Kansas State has shown it can handle.

With and without its star forward.

“It's a testament to how hard we work,” Gregory said. “You know, I don't think a lot of teams thought we could win these big games without Ayoka out here, but everyone had to step up their game, and everyone has to play at a higher level without her out here. But we're just going to fight as hard as we can all 40 minutes and that's the best we can do.”


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