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WSU will have its hands full with Kansas State in NCAA opener

The Wildcats feature Ayoka Lee, one of the best players in the country.

Baylor v Kansas State
Kansas State’s 6-foot-6 center, Ayoka Lee, is a second-team all-American.
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

To all of us, the Washington State Cougars making the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year — as an 8 seed, no less — is the big story of Saturday’s game against the No. 9 seed Kansas State Wildcats.

To the rest of the nation, however, the big story is one of the most dominant players in all of women’s basketball: 6-foot-6 K-State center Ayoka Lee.

The first round game tips off bright and early at 8:30 a.m. PT on Saturday from Raleigh, N.C. You can watch it on ESPN2 or at ESPN.com (with a cable subscription).

“Lee is an amazing player,” WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said on this week’s coach’s show. “(She) does some things better than anyone in the country does, so it is a hard matchup for us in that sense, because we’re not very tall. We have to find a way to not let her have 61 points — if she has that many we’re in trouble.”

Ethridge didn’t just pull that number — 61 — out of thin air. That’s how many points Lee scored against No. 14 Oklahoma in late January. She needed “just” 30 shots to do it, supplementing it by shooting 15-of-17 from the free throw line. She also grabbed 12 rebounds and had 3 blocks in that game.

It wasn’t just a one-off outburst: Lee averaged 22.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3 blocks. Lee is the only player in the country to average 20/10/3, leading to her being named a second-team all-American.

Since that game, however, teams have really dedicated all their energy to slowing down Lee, and it’s largely worked — in the 12 games since then, she’s only topped 20 points five times and the Wildcats have gone 4-8 in that stretch.

“Every game, there’s a lot of help being sent,” Lee said. “It’s just never going to be easy. There is always going to be help, extra pressure. It is something you have to get used to. You have to make adjustments.”

So far, the Wildcats haven’t adjusted very well. But both teams have now had a week to try and figure out how they’re going to try and attack each other.

“We’ve got to depend on our IQ, our ability to understand what they’re trying to do,” Ethridge said. “We’ve got to take some chances and hope that they don’t make a lot of 3s.”

The Cougs probably won’t want to help off of point guard Serena Sundell, who makes 36% of her 3s — far and away the best on the team — and Jaelyn Glenn (31%) is the only other player over 30%.

“People are adjusting,” Sundell said. “We have to be able to step up on the perimeter and make them come out and guard us so we can give her more opportunities. They’re going to be collapsing on Ayoka. She’s a big name and a great player who is very efficient inside. So we have got to be able to knock down shots and make them guard us so we can get everyone back involved.”

Subjecting yourself entirely to the vagaries of the 3-point lottery isn’t a real comfortable place to be when losing means your season is over, so it will be interesting to see how else the Cougs cope with Lee. WSU’s primary big, Bella Murekatete, is 6-foot-4 herself and has improved immensely as a post defender this year, particularly when it comes to denying post entries. Additionally, WSU’s defense is known for being gritty and swarming with active hands: Charlisse Leger-Walker, Krystal Leger-Walker, and Murekatete combine for more than half of the Cougs’ nearly eight steals per game.

Of course ... the Cougars have plenty of talent of their own, starting with the Leger-Walker sisters. Charlisse averages 16 points, and Krystal dishes out nearly 5 assists per game. Both of them will be a handful for the Wildcats.

But there’s a pretty good chance that the Cougs’ offensive fortunes will come down to the contributions of a couple of other players: Ula Motuga and Johanna Teder.

Motuga has been a key floor spacer this season with her improved 3-point shot — she’s made 48% of her 3-point attempts this season — and when she missed the Pac-12 tournament loss with an injury, it was felt by the offense. She is expected to be a full go for the game.

Teder, meanwhile, had a three-game stretch where she scored 52 points, including 21 in the upset win over Arizona near the end of February. She hasn’t found her scoring touch since, though, shooting 3-for-16 from beyond the arc in the final three games. When she’s on, the offense gets supercharged.

“You know ... they’re going to have to figure out how they want to play us,” Ethridge said, “and and they’re going to have to take some chances. So, I’m excited about this matchup.”