Does best player in women’s hoops wear purple? K-State star Ayoka Lee makes her case

Sean Rayford/AP
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One of three things usually happens whenever Ayoka Lee catches an entry pass in the paint for the Kansas State women’s basketball team.

1. She posts up her defender, spins to face the basket and scores.

2. She gets fouled while attacking the rim and goes to the free-throw line.

3. She passes to an open teammate on the perimeter and the Wildcats shoot a wide-open three.

There are also occasions when Lee misses and the Wildcats end up with an empty possession, but those are becoming so rare for the team’s star 6-foot-6 junior center that head coach Jeff Mittie is beginning to chalk them up simply as bad luck.

“You’re surprised when she misses,” Mittie said. “That’s always good. She’s just finishing at such a high, high level.”

So high that she will be in the mix for national player of the year honors if she keeps it up.

Lee has shown no signs of slowing down. The Byron, Minnesota native is having one of the best individual seasons in program history and is currently averaging 23.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. She is also making 59% of her shots from the field and 73% of her shots from the free-throw line. One more thing: She ranks fourth nationally with 61 blocked shots.

The best college women’s basketball player might reside in Manhattan.

“This is a player that isn’t just putting up numbers that are big for the Big 12 but numbers that are big nationally,” Mittie said. “I think she’s playing at a player of the year level ... Certainly, she’s in the conversation.”

Her teammates hope they can help keep her there.

“She is 100% deserving of all the attention she is getting,” K-State freshman guard Serena Sundell said. “It’s pretty clear that the game plan of every team we play is to stop her and our offense is pretty much built around her, too. She’s the best post player I have been around. Overall, I would say playing with her is a luxury.”

Sundell says that, because winning games is often as easy as getting Lee the ball.

One of the main reasons K-State (13-4, 3-2 Big 12) is on pace to return to the NCAA Tournament this season with a current NET rating of No. 20 is Lee’s scoring ability near the basket. She is tall enough to catch lob passes over defenders and finish at the rim. But she is also skilled enough to score over defenders when they prevent her from driving to the rim.

“You have to pick your poison,” Sundell said. “Even if teams double her she’s just going to pass it out to an open shooter.”

The game has become easy for Lee.

“Our guards have done a really good job of getting the ball inside and knowing what spots on the floor to get me the ball,” Lee said. “From there, I just have to make the right move against the defender based on how they’re guarding me. We are so in sync that I feel like we can run out stuff and score regardless of what the other team is doing.”

Lee has been turning heads since the moment the 2021-22 season began. She started the year with a career-high 43 points and nine rebounds against Central Arkansas and followed that up with 33 points against Western Kentucky and 31 against North Carolina A&T later that week.

Some likely chalked those monster numbers up to playing weak competition, but she has been just as good against ranked opponents. That much has been evident since the beginning of Big 12 play.

Then-No. 10 Baylor could do nothing to stop Lee when she scored 32 points and led the Wildcats to a 68-59 victory. Iowa State had no answer for her when she set a program record with 38 points in a conference game during a narrow 73-70 loss against the then-No. 9 Cyclones.

None of those performances came as a surprise to Mittie. He could tell early on when Lee sat out her freshman season while recovering from a ACL injury that she was going to be special. She was nearly impossible to stop in practice immediately.

Lee, on the other hand, didn’t see this coming.

She has always been confident in her skills as a basketball player, but she has also always been too busy working on her craft to worry about things like her place in the national player of the year race. She tries to block that stuff out.

Her mindset is to keep catching the ball in the paint, keep scoring over her defender and let that stuff sort itself out. Maybe that’s why she so rarely misses.

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