“Staying together”: Kansas’ Unforgettable WNIT Run

Federico Moreno | @f3demoreno

The last time Kansas Women’s Basketball won a title was 26 years ago when they were crowned the Big 12’s 1997 Regular Season Champion. That streak was finally broken Saturday evening when they claimed their first-ever WNIT Title after defeating Columbia 66-59.
After being upset in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament by No. 10 TCU, Kansas would wait for Selection Sunday in hopes of another NCAA Tournament berth. The Jayhawks were instead greeted by a WNIT Invitation, and even though it wasn’t the invite they were looking for they decided to make the most out of it.

“We all decided we’re going to play to win,” junior forward Chandler Prater said. “It’s two feet in– there’s no backing off”.

This team would encounter a mix of old and new foes throughout their WNIT bracket.

Kansas came into the tournament roaring, defeating Western Kentucky 86-72 in the first round. It was clear from the first game that this group of Jayhawks was determined to make history.
On Mar. 20, the Border Showdown between Kansas and Missouri was revived as both teams met in the second round inside Allen Fieldhouse. It was the first time these programs faced each other since 2012, and Jayhawk fans were thrilled about this win-or-go-home matchup.
The Jayhawks started hot and did not slow down. Their defense forced Missouri to 37% shooting while the offense connected on half of their three-pointers. Kansas prevailed 75-47 securing a meeting with another old rival: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

This was a rematch of the triple overtime thriller in Lincoln on Dec. 21, in which Nebraska triumphed 85-77. That marked Kansas’ only non-conference loss of the season.

Kansas was able to build an early lead which they never gave up despite some Nebraska runs. Senior guard Zakiyah Franklin broke a program record for most triples in a postseason matchup nailing five of six from beyond the arc.

The Jayhawks would prevail in the postseason rematch defeating Nebraska 64-55.
“We want to keep on improving,” Prater said after the game emphasizing that the job was not finished.

Arkansas defeated Texas Tech the following day in Fayetteville and would be the Jayhawks’ next opponent in the Super 16.

The Razorbacks have become a bitter rival of Kansas this season, ending the football and men’s basketball seasons, and fans were thrilled for another meeting against Arkansas. However, the girls would not be fazed by the newer rivalry.

“We were just thinking about our team and us continuing to play in this tournament,” Jackson told the press after the game.

Kansas outplayed Arkansas en route to a 78-64 victory securing a trip to the Fab 4 of the WNIT. Their opponent: the aggressively defensive Washington Huskies.

The Huskies started the game on point; double-teaming Jackson in the paint and forcing Kansas to difficult shots. The Jayhawks needed a spark, and they found it in the bench. A pair of threes from freshman guard Zsofia Telegdy and sophomore guard Sanna Strom ignited a brilliant exhibition of offense for Kansas.

The Jayhawks took the lead in the first and did not look back. Kansas defeated Washington 61-36 to advance to their second WNIT Final in program history. This was the Jayhawks’ second-largest WNIT win in history, behind Missouri’s second-round 28-point victory.

The Jayhawks’ defense made the difference in their most competitive exhibition this postseason.
“Defense wins championships,” Jackson said. “Teams only score off our mistakes… us just committed to defense is where we have the advantage”.

Kansas was now faced with the Columbia Tigers in the WNIT Final with an opportunity to break the dreading 26-year streak.

Columbia has had one of the country’s quickest and most explosive offenses and head coach Brandon Schneider’s staff knew they would have to continue their suffocating defense into this matchup.

“They’re damn good,” Schneider said after the game, crediting Columbia’s attributes all season lead under head coach Megan Griffith.

Griffith is Columbia’s all-time winningest coach in seven seasons as head coach. She’s led the Lions to their first WNIT bids in the past two seasons and an Ivy League tournament championship game in 2022.
“This season was special,” Griffith said. She made sure to remind her team that despite the loss, they accomplished tremendous accolades and have put their program at peaks it’s never seen before.

The Lions have had a historic pair of seasons starting in 2021-22, breaking a program record for the best season going 25-7 on the year and 12-2 in Ivy play. Columbia advanced to the postseason for the first time in 36 years making it to the National Quarterfinals of the WNIT.

Kansas’ defensive effort was clear throughout the game, and it paid off. Columbia ranks No. 13 nationally in scoring offense and was held to their second-lowest scoring performance of the season.

Senior center Taiyanna Jackson finished the game with 17 points and 21 boards, tying a career-high in rebounds for the fourth time. Midway through the third quarter, she was taken into the locker room to deal with a tweaked ankle she got after a tough fall.

A few minutes later, she ran back to the bench and quickly after to the scorer’s table to sub in for junior center Nadira Eltayeb. Not even a minute back in action she scored a basket and Allen Fieldhouse erupted.

Jackson has had a historic season at Kansas and has been a force that’s been almost impossible to match for opponents. She was recognized as a WBCA All-American Honorable Mention Friday afternoon.

“She’s an unbelievable young woman,” Schnieder said referring to Jackson. “She’s a very tough individual who’s grown to love this place”.
The Chicago-area native led the Big 12 in blocks, rebounds, and field goal percentage, and was a unanimous all-conference first-team and defensive team selection.

Junior forward Chandler Prater tied her career high with four steals, and her energy was a spark several times against Columbia. Schneider emphasized her relentlessness multiple times throughout the tournament and has praised her ability to fire up her team.

All six of Kansas’ tournament games were played inside Allen Fieldhouse, each one with more fans than the previous contest.

“It was amazing watching our crowd grow every game… I’ve never experienced something this big,” Jackson said after the Championship Final. She thanked the fans and students for showing out and helping the team build momentum when they needed it the most.

Throughout 21 games inside Allen Fieldhouse this season, the average attendance was 3,090. In Kansas’ Fab 4 game against Washington, 7,229 spectators were in the Fieldhouse, marking the largest turnout since 2010.

‘Fill the Fieldhouse’ was the saying around the campus in anticipation of the final game on Saturday. 11,701 fans came out to support the Lady Jayhawks face Columbia, but the loudness and energy felt as if all 16,300 seats in the Fieldhouse were taken.

“It’s been a huge factor for our games,” senior forward Holly Kersgeiter said. “This is Allen Fieldhouse. This is what it’s like playing at KU”.

It seemed that fan support was always a topic of discussion in the press conferences after every game this tournament, but the players would always smile when asked about the energy fans can bring.

“We knew we wanted to put the best product on the floor,” Franklin said on one occasion. “Us being us would attract fans”.

Zakiyah Franklin was named onto the all-tournament team after averaging 16.3 points per game while connecting on 55.5% from three and 96.2% from the free throw line in the WNIT.

Taiyanna Jackson was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds along with 17 total blocks and five steals throughout the Invitational.

The last time Kansas won a title of any sort was in 1997 when they won the Big 8 Conference regular season under head coach Marian Washington.

Since 1997, Kansas has received NCAA tournament bids seven times and has reached the Sweet Sixteen on three occasions. The Jayhawks have also been invited to the WNIT six times since and were runner-ups in 2009.

Not only did Kansas win the WNIT, but they also made their first appearance in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2013 and were ranked as high as #19. Kansas’ 25 wins also marked the most in the program since the 1996-97 season.

This season was truly one of the most remarkable years in the program. Kansas’ resilience overcame a year full of adversity, injuries, and drawbacks to becoming a stronger unit creating one of the program’s most iconic and prolific teams.

When asked what was unique about this year’s team Jackson’s two words simply summarized it up: “Staying together.”

The WNIT banner will likely be raised during Late Night at the Phog in the fall with a bright future ahead for the Lady Jayhawks.