March 23, 2024 

Sights and sounds from the Big Dance in the Little Apple

Kansas State, Colorado set up NCAA Tournament showdown

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Most believe that peaking at the right time is part of the formula for success in the NCAA Tournament. For Kansas State, their finish to the regular season — a bumpy 5-6 stretch after a 20-1 start — was one that could have easily found them on the road to start the Big Dance.

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Instead, the selection committee rewarded them with the No. 4 seed in the Albany 2 Regional and brought three other schools to Manhattan, Kansas — your quintessential college town, filled with limestone buildings, fraternity and sorority houses and community residents that love their team. If you are looking for good food or a cold beverage, that can be found in Aggieville or at any tailgate in the vast parking lots of Bill Snyder Family Football Stadium.

In the late 1970’s, people started referring to Manhattan as the Little Apple. We think of New York City as the place where people go to achieve greatness and their dreams. For K-State, Colorado, Drake and Portland, dreams of cutting down the nets officially got started in the Manhattan of the Midwest.

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But before we break down the games, a few quick notes from Bramlage Coliseum: Attendance for Friday’s games was announced at 9,642. The usual purple-and-white clad crowd for their hometown Wildcats got an added boost, even if by appearance only, from Portland, which also has the same color scheme.

The best band award goes to Colorado for their eclectic mix of pop and 60’s tunes. Best mascot award goes to Wally the Pilot, a very muscular river boat captain who calls Portland, Oregon home.

No. 4 seed K-State (Big 12) vs. No. 13 seed Portland (WCC)

Slow starts plagued Kansas State in their two games at the Big 12 Tournament, but the Wildcats were anything but sluggish at home, opening the game on a 18-4 run. Portland had just four made field goals and six turnovers in the first quarter, allowing K-State to lead 25-10.

“I certainly liked our start and I liked a lot of things we were doing. I think we needed a game like this. To get just kind of the nerves and all that out of the first game, I think you needed to get a tough game like this,” said K-State head coach Jeff Mittie after the game.

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The Pilots settled down in the second 10 minutes to set their full court pressure defense, causing five Wildcats turnovers and a host of rushed shots. They held K-State scoreless the last 2:31 of the first half, finishing on a five-point run and trailing 40-28 at the break.

“The press has a tendency to wear on you and if a player takes off or a player gets fatigued out there and they’re supposed to fill a gap, maybe that timing’s off, and I think that happened to us,” Mittie said postgame. “I do think that when we rotated players in, they were coming into a game that was pretty chaotic and they didn’t settle into that chaos very well.”

The second half saw Portland continue to cut into the lead, trimming the deficit to nine on back-to-back baskets by junior guard Maisie Burnham with 7:20 left in the third. But when K-State needed to respond and get their crowd back into it, Mittie went to his seniors in guard Gabby Gregory and Ayoka Lee, his All-American center. Gregory posted the majority of her 22 points in the second half, going 3-for-7 from behind the arc. Lee finished the game with 21 points and nine rebounds and was 7-for-8 from the free throw line, leading the Wildcats to a 78-65 victory.

K-State was able to weather small bursts by Portland, who shot 48% for the game, in the second half. Surprisingly, they did lose the battle for the paint, as the Pilots outscored the Wildcats 44-32. The Pilots’ ability to pull Lee out of the paint based on matchups opened penetration lanes and guard isolations in the post.

Portland was led in scoring by Burnham, who finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. The Pilots finished their season 21–13 in what was their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the past five years.

Head coach Michael Meek reflected on this season and his team after the game: “I can’t think thank this team enough for how incredible they have been to coach and how much they have continued to support each other and continued to improve and not give up on each other, and also just how they represent our university as people and as students. It’s just been an awesome team to coach.”

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No. 5 Colorado (Pac-12) vs. No. 12 Drake (MVC)

With two teams that average over 75 points per game on the season, we could expect a first round matchup of teams that would get up and down for 40 minutes. While the top seed pounced first in the opening game, it was Drake who jumped on the No. 5 seed to an early 11-3 lead in the second matchup. The Bulldogs hit five of their first six shots, with senior guard Courtney Becker knocking down five quick points. Following a timeout by head coach JR Payne, Colorado settled into their gameplan of going inside and attacking Drake in the paint. The Buffaloes then ran off 10 straight points of their own, ending the first quarter with a breakaway layup off a steal by guard Jaylyn Sherrod to lead 24-21. 

It was a fast paced second 10 minutes for both teams, with the Buffs stretching their lead to 12, but Drake countering with 18 first half points by standout junior guard Katie Dinnebier. The Bulldogs cut the lead to five, even as they went the final 2:32 of the half without scoring. 6’0 forward Grace Berg, who averages 17 points per game on the year for Drake, was held to just four in the first half due to the lockdown defense from Sherrod. Colorado center Aaronette Vonleh paced the Buffs with 14 in the first half, going 6-for-13 from the field and leading her team to a 46-41 halftime lead.

“We have not played a team like Drake all year. So I’m really proud of how our team prepared. It’s hard to prepare for a team you’ve never seen before, and so I thought that was great,” said Colorado head coach JR Payne. “When I look at a couple things we talked about, really trying to be aggressive inside, really trying to do a great job on the glass because they’re such a good rebounding team, we did a really good job in those two areas, and those were huge priorities for us.”

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Colorado’s Kindyll Wetta, Jaylyn Sherrod and Frida Formann, as seen here in last season’s NCAA Tournament, are marching in to a second round matchup with No. 4 seed Kansas State. (Photo credit: Tyler Davis / CU Athletics)

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Colorado continued to attack as the second half began, going 12-for-17 from the field and dominating Drake on the glass in the third quarter. Eventually, they took a 71-53 lead into the final 10 minutes. The relentless defensive pressure and size inside wore down Drake, along with the patience by the Buffs against their sagging zone.

Colorado had four player finish in double figures, led by Vonleh with a double-double (18 and 10) and junior guard Kindyll Wetta added 16 points, going 2-for-3 from behind the arc. Their rebounding dominance was a key in the second half — they finished the game with 23 offensive boards and a 38-17 advantage on the glass. Ultimately, Colorado advanced to the second round with an 86-72 victory.

When asked about what lies ahead for her team, Payne knows this is something they are prepared for. “This is a Pac-12 schedule we’re playing this weekend, Friday-Sunday. So we’re used to this rhythm of it. So I think our team will do a great job of resting. Tomorrow morning we wake up, the scout is already done, but start teaching our team the scout, what’s important, what does it look like, what does it feel like, and yeah, just get ready for a really tough game.”

Drake’s Dinnebier finished the game with 24 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs had won 14 games coming into the 2024 NCAA Tournament, their 15th appearance in program history.  They finish their season 29–6, setting a new single-season program record for wins.

Drake guard Katie Dinnebier led the Bulldogs to a record-setting 29 wins this season but they came up short in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: Joseph Cress/For The Register/USA Today Network)

“To get to 29 wins for the first time in program history I think is a really, really impressive statistic. We would have really liked to get it to 30. But today clearly a lot of different adjustments that could have been made. Ball could have gone in the hole a little bit more, and the obvious thing about rebounding clearly did not go in our favor. Still very, very proud of our team, but just didn’t come out our way,” said Drake head coach Allison Pohlman.

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What’s next in the Little Apple?

The seeds have played out and the second-round matchup is the one everyone was waiting for — No. 4 Kansas State versus No. 5 Colorado. Both teams have a strong post presence, but this game may very well be won in the backcourt. Two all-conference point guards will go at it in K-State junior Serena Sundell and Jaylyn Sherrod of Colorado.

Can K-State handle the Colorado pressure? Can the Buffs contain Ayoka Lee in the paint? Will the Wildcats keep the Buffs off the offensive glass? All storylines to watch heading into Sunday. K-State officials are predicting a sellout which will make for an imposing environment for the old, and now new, Big 12 foes.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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