Kansas State women exit NCAA Tournament with disappointing home loss to Colorado

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Home-court advantage wasn’t enough for the Kansas State women’s basketball team to advance to the Sweet 16.

The No. 4 seed Wildcats got off to an impressive start against the No. 5 seed Colorado Buffaloes and put themselves in position to continue their run through the NCAA Tournament. But they were unable to sustain that pace and ultimately lost 63-50 in the Round of 32 on Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum.

K-State lost while playing in front of a sellout crowd that was among the loudest in program history.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the purple-clad fans in attendance couldn’t make K-State’s shots go through the basket, force passes to Ayoka Lee through a stifling Colorado defense or make the final call on video reviews.

K-State squandered a 33-24 lead with lackluster offense the rest of the way and saw its season end against a Colorado opponent that never stopped making plays.

“It’s disappointing to lose this one,” K-State coach Jeff Mittie said. “It’s disappointing to lose when you don’t play very well and you don’t feel like you did things as well as you could have. There’s always regret that comes with that. You feel like you could have, should have done this and that. But at the end of the day the game presents its challenges and there were moments that we didn’t handle things very well.”

The Buffaloes fought back to within two points at halftime and then owned the second half. They closed the game on a 39-17 run after the Wildcats appeared in control with a nine-point lead in the second quarter.

Kansas State’s Serena Sundell celebrates on the floor after she was fouled by Colorado’s Quay Miller after a made three-pointer during the first half in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle
Kansas State’s Serena Sundell celebrates on the floor after she was fouled by Colorado’s Quay Miller after a made three-pointer during the first half in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

Gabby Gregory led K-State with 12 points, while Serena Sundell had 11 and Ayoka Lee added 10.

This was a particularly frustrating game for Lee, the team’s star center. Even though she finished with a double-double that included 11 rebounds, she was never able to affect the game the way she did most of the season.

Colorado did everything it possibly could to prevent Lee from getting the ball. The Buffaloes played physical defense against her and denied many entry passes that came her way. That was a big reason why the Wildcats finished with 22 turnovers.

Aaronette Vonleh, who was tasked with defending Lee most of the afternoon, came up with an incredible seven steals against her.

“I was just trying to be really intentional about getting in the best position to be able to slip around,” Vonleh said. “I never really look in the steals column when I look at my name. So to see seven there is kind of crazy. I was just being aggressive and not letting her get any easy touches.”

A promising season ended in tears for the Wildcats.

Mittie closed out the game by giving Gregory, Sundell and Lee hugs on the sideline after they played their final game together. Then the K-State players showed their appreciation to the crowd that lifted them during two postseason games inside their home arena.

Kansas State’s Gabby Gregory celebrates a three-pointer during the first half against Colorado in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle
Kansas State’s Gabby Gregory celebrates a three-pointer during the first half against Colorado in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

“If that’s my last game at Bramlage Coliseum that’s a pretty good crowd to go out on,” Gregory said. “I’m just really thankful to the fans. Everyone has been amazing and so supportive of us this year.”

This had the makings of a back-and-forth game that at times felt like a tug of war.

At no point was that more evident than when K-State scored eight straight points near the beginning of the second quarter to take what felt like a commanding 33-24 lead. But the Wildcats didn’t actually create much breathing room for themselves, because the Buffaloes answered right back with seven straight of their own.

Colorado and K-State were heading for a deadlocked score at halftime until Sundell came through with a heads up play at the buzzer to give the Wildcats a 35-33 lead.

On the play, Sundell sent an inbounds pass off the back of Colorado’s Brianna McLeod and then grabbed the loose ball while no one was paying attention to her for an easy layup. The basket was both clutch and smart. Throw in good timing and it probably deserves a spot among the top 10 plays of the day on SportsCenter.

In an unexpected turn of events, Sundell was also at the center of a play that later swung momentum toward Colorado.

Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee fights for a loose ball against Colorado’s Charlotte Whittaker in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle
Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee fights for a loose ball against Colorado’s Charlotte Whittaker in the second round of their NCAA Tournament game on Sunday in Manhattan. Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

With the score tied at 39 in the third quarter, Sundell was given a Flagrant 1 foul for elbowing Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod in the face while she drove to the basket. Sundell argued the contact was incidental, but Sherrod protested that the officials needed to review the play. After a lengthy video review, the foul was assessed and Colorado responded with a 13-3 run.

Just like that, the Buffaloes broke open a tie game and led by 10 at the end of three quarters.

K-State fought until the bitter finish, and even pulled within six in the fourth quarter. But Colorado simply had too much toughness and firepower to let the game slip away.

For that reason, the Buffaloes are moving on and the Wildcats are done

“Obviously, this really sucks,” Gregory said through tears in the postgame news conference. “I wasn’t expecting to be done this early. Right now I’m just so upset that we’re not moving on. The magnitude of my basketball career being over in college, it really hasn’t hit me yet. I’m just so thankful for Coach Mittie for allowing me to come here. I couldn’t ask for a better experience the last two years. I just love this school and I love K-State.”