PREVIEW: Women’s basketball faces its tallest task yet in tangle with Kentucky

Sophomore Ayoka Lee attempts to work past her defender in the Wildcats victory 66-51 over Southern last Sunday. (Photo Courtesy of Scott Weaver | K-State Athletics)

After collecting its first win of the season against Southern on Sunday afternoon, the women’s basketball team (1-0) face its most difficult task yet on Thursday night — No. 11 Kentucky (2-0).

The battle of the Wildcats is part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge and will be the first meeting between the two teams.

Kentucky comes into Manhattan undefeated at 2-0 after blowout victories over Murray State (86-60) and Belmont (70-50) to start the season. Not only is Kentucky one of the top teams in the nation, but it also has the unanimous SEC Preseason Women’s Basketball Player of the Year in junior guard Rhyne Howard.

Howard comes off of a two-game suspension for “not upholding the standards of the program,” meaning Thursday night’s game at Bramlage will be her first chance to prove she is one of the top players in the nation.

Even without Howard so far this season, Kentucky was still dominant, as senior guard Chasity Patterson filled in for Howard and performed at a high level, averaging 20 points per game.

“I think [Kentucky is] one of the dark horses for the final four,” Kansas State head coach Jeff Mittie said. “Howard has been recognized nationally coming out of her junior year and can score at all three levels. Patterson played half the season last year and is really coming into her own as of late. They just really have all the pieces that make a good basketball team.”

Not only has Kentucky been without its top player for the first two games of the season, but they also had to deal with a change at head coach. After becoming the winningest head coach in Kentucky women’s basketball history with a record of 333-162, Matthew Mitchell retired from his position on Nov. 12 following an offseason brain surgery.

Since then Kyra Elzy, who was the associate head coach before this season, took over as the interim head coach for Kentucky. Thursday night will be her first true test at the helm.

Adding to the already unique storyline going into Thursday night, K-State Athletics recently announced that the game against Kentucky will be the first game of the season with fans will allowed inside Bramlage Coliseum.

“I’m so excited to have the fans back,” junior guard Christianna Carr said. “It’s a good feeling knowing the crowd has my back. Our fans are diehard K-State fans and I’m excited to get that energy back in Bramlage.”

Even though K-State only permits 15 percent capacity inside Bramlage for the rest of the season — about 1,880 people — Carr said she is just excited to hear the cheers of real fans.

“I’m tired of listening to the speakers just play audio of fans clapping and talking to create noise on the court,” Carr said.

While Kentucky has plenty of talent, K-State is no slouch. Wooden Award Watch List recipient sophomore center Ayoka Lee led the way for K-State in its victory against Southern and has to up her game even more against Kentucky.

“I think about my pregame preparation as a whole,” Lee said. “I try and focus on how great of an opportunity it is. Being able to trust my preparation going into the matchup is key for me.”

K-State posted 10 blocks in its first game against Southern and Lee was a major contributor to that number, recording four herself, while also leading the team in rebounds (nine) and points (17). Lee’s abilities will be heavily utilized and so will Carr’s, who was not far behind Lee against Southern, scoring 15 points including three baskets from behind the arc.

Tipoff for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup is set for 6:30 p.m on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.