Just minutes after they had the crowd rocking during a dominant 87-66 win over No. 4 Baylor, KU senior Holly Kersgieter stood in a mostly empty Allen Fieldhouse and took the head set from head coach Brandon Schneider.
It was time for the radio broadcast to transition from coach to player, and as they passed off the headset like a baton in a relay race, the two shared a hug and a moment.
But this wasn’t just any moment. This was the moment.
In an overjoyed locker room just moments earlier, Schneider made sure everyone knew that, reminding the room that this group had now beaten every team in the Big 12.
Baylor was the last one to fall. KU’s white whale, if you will. And after 18 consecutive losses to the Bears, dating back to the 2014 season, KU had finally slayed the dragon.
The moment was even bigger than that, though. Wednesday’s victory also represented just the third time in program history that a Kansas women’s basketball team had knocked off a top-5 opponent.
Wins like that don’t just happen. They require the perfect combination of confidence, chemistry, execution and focus. And on Wednesday night, the Jayhawks had all of that in bunches.
Given the fact that they entered the day on a three-game conference losing streak and were still in search of their first Big 12 win of the season, Wednesday’s victory was as important as it was intoxicating.
R1S1 Sports was there for all of it and talked to four of the five KU starters after the victory. Here’s a four-part look at how they made the historic and memorable night happen.
Kersgieter insists that Wednesday started out just like any other day.
“I mean, seriously the same,” she told R1S1 Sports after the victory. “I woke up at like 11:30 today.”
Winter break helped allow for some of that, but her sense of calm and comfort in what this team is and still can be made it doable, as well.
Kersgieter wasn’t alone in that thinking. After entering the season with huge expectations, this group has always aspired to be great. So, even thought they were just 7-7 overall and 0-3 in Big 12 play when they woke up on Wednesday, they still believed that good things were ahead.
“That’s all we preached,” senior guard Zakiyah Franklin said after scoring 191 points in the win. “We were like, ‘Guys, we’re fine. We were picked third in the Big 12, not to say that that matters, but that says a lot.’ And we wanted to believe in ourselves and believe in each other and just keep playing.”
Is that hard to do?
“It can be when it seems like everything’s going wrong,” Franklin said. “So, we just wanted to keep at it, keep working and go day by day.”
That last part was a big key, Kersgieter said. It’s human nature to look for something to fix when things aren’t going well. But the Jayhawks didn’t do that. Instead, they stayed the course and kept working. Wednesday’s victory showed what’s possible when the combination of work and faith comes together on the same night.
“It’s hard because when you’ve had three losses in a row it’s automatically, ‘OK, what do we change,’” Kersgieter said. “And it can be off the court. It can be routine-based. It can drive you insane. But we just kept everything calm. There’s a thin line between believing in something versus changing something.”
Freshman guard S’Mya Nchols, who scored 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting in her first ever crack at Baylor, said the game plan was put in place days ago.
“We just wanted to put them in a whole bunch of screens and we worked off that,” she said after looking virtually unguardable in those ball-screen-and-drive moments. “A whole bunch of reads. We practiced it for days now, just trying to make the right read. It wasn’t really the game plan to drive them the whole time, but I just kept doing it.”
So did Kersgieter and Franklin and point guard Wyvette Mayberry, each one of them getting to the rim and finishing through contact or over a defender.
Truth be told, this could have been a 30-point win. Kansas shot just 14-of-26 at the free throw line on the night. Had they made even half of the ones they missed, this is a 27-point victory and may not have even come down to the final quarter.
Kersgieter also credited KU’s zone defense, which limited Baylor to 36.5% shooting on the night, including a 3-for-14 mark in the third quarter.
And senior center Taiyanna Jackson, who topped 1,000 points for her career with a monster, 27-point, 19-rebound showing against the Bears — "they had no answer for Twin," Kersgieter said. — credited Mayberry for her tough defense on Baylor guard Sarah Andrews.
While handling the ball and keeping KU’s offense in flow for much of the night, Mayberry also held Andrews to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
“Big shout-out to Wyvette for keeping her under her average,” Jackson said. “We couldn’t have done this without Wyvette guarding their best player.”
The plan and belief in their ability to play with teams like Baylor was one thing. But the execution was something entirely different.
“We didn’t win by two, we won by 20,” a still-smiling Kersgieter said after the victory. “Everything was just clicking.”
While the win was huge and historic, it also did not come as a huge surprise to the Jayhawks. First off, they believe that they have to be at their best on just about every night in the Big 12 to come out on top, so saying they put in more effort or focus because it was Baylor would be disingenuous.
That’s how they felt when they played top-10 powerhouses UConn and Virginia Tech tight back in the Cayman Islands in November.
“We were fighting so hard for these types of wins in non-conference play, and the way we approached tonight felt different than the way we approached those games. But I think that all comes back to the Big 12 and the competitiveness of this league. Baylor being No. 4 was truly just a bonus. Like, really, it doesn’t change our mindset at all. But it still felt different, just the running on the court and all that.”
After a good start that made it clear that KU came to play, the Jayhawks found themselves playing catch-up. Baylor led 21-18 after one quarter and was using its size in the backcourt and physicality down low to get whatever it wanted.
But KU quickly flipped the script on that, hounding Baylor’s guards, forcing tough shots and rebounding everything in sight. KU out-rebounded Baylor 48-31 in this one, while also limiting the Bears to 5-of-25 shooting from 3-point range.
“We wanted to make them uncomfortable,” said Jackson, who added 3 blocks. “It just felt so good. We stayed together as a team, we out-toughed them and we just had fun for 40 minutes. We needed this. We needed this momentum and we know now that we can compete with the best of the best.”
That realization came during the final few minutes of the second quarter. That’s when things really flipped and Kansas stormed into the locker room with the game tied at 37 after an 8-0 KU run over the final 2:50 of the quarter.
“That was big, momentum-wise,” Kersgieter said. “We were excited, and that carried over into our run in the third quarter. We came out hot and we put it on ’em. We didn’t have any major halftime adjustments, we just wanted to keep going.”
After the Jayhawks raced off the court and back to the locker room like they were in a cartoon riding sticks of dynamite following S’Mya Nichols’ buzzer-beater layup that tied the game, Kersgieter said they quickly regained their composure.
“I know that people were probably thinking, ‘Oh my god; they’re tied at halftime,’” she said. “But we weren’t. The locker room was very calm and level-headed. No one was celebrating. Everyone was on the same page. It was what we needed.”
Added Nichols of her game-tying bucket: “That was a big momentum switch already, especially because it tied it. It was like, ‘OK, we’ve really got this.’ And then we came out with more energy and determination.”
That they did. KU answered its 8-0 run to close the first half with an 8-0 run to start the second half. Baylor quickly called timeout, but the damage was already done. Kansas played most of the rest of the way with a double-digit lead, outscoring the Bears 26-10 in the third quarter to take a 63-47 lead into the fourth quarter.
“In the third quarter, when we went on our run and they called timeout, we just felt so much energy from the crowd and it was so great seeing how happy our teammates were and coaches were,” Jackson said. “Just the reaction to the 8-0 run and the timeout we forced them to take, that was probably my favorite part.”
As the KU lead ballooned from there, first to double digits, then to 13 and then 16, 18, 19 and the final margin of 21 points, the Bears could do nothing but collapse.
They argued amongst themselves and with the officials, carried frustration on their faces after missed shots and turnovers and went deep into their bench looking for an answer on how to stop Jackson. They never found one.
“Not to sound like a psycho, but it’s just fun to see other teams fall apart,” Kersgieter said.
While Jackson was able to settle on her favorite moment of the night, all four of the Jayhawks who were interviewed for this story, including Jackson initially, said there was not one single moment that stood out. Instead, it was the entire night, the collection of moments, that made this one special.
Big plays, subtle looks, physical battles and massive shots all led to the victory.
That’s why they had so much to celebrate.
“I would have to choose the whole thing,” Franklin said. “There were so many big moments. I’ve got to relive it in my head. But I won’t mind doing that.”
After the final buzzer sounded on the victory, the Jayhawks partied at mid-court. Kersgieter was at the center of it all after running from her position on defense to the middle of the floor to meet her teammates. The look of genuine joy on her face as she ran toward her teammates who spilled onto the court from the bench showed you exactly what this one meant.
The other four starters weren’t far behind her, and together they jumped and hugged and laughed and smiled before pulling it together to go shake hands with the Bears.
“All our fastbreaks, everyone’s and-ones and the end, with the celebration at mid-court. It was just joyful,” Nichols said when asked for her favorite part.
Added Franklin: “It finally felt like a little come to Jesus moment, like, ‘OK, great. We finally got something to go our way.’ We’ve just been talking a lot about getting the momentum flipped in our direction and tonight we did that.”
That scene on the court was merely the start of the celebration.
As soon as they got into the locker room, after making various stops to do radio, television and other media interviews, the team unleashed a celebration that included emptying water bottles on each other, lots of jumping up and down and hugs and all kinds of noise.
“That was such a surreal feeling,” Nichols said. “Everyone’s just happy and screaming. You’re just filled with joy and it’s hard to express that joy other than to just scream. That’s what it was. And I was like, ‘We were meant for this.’”
Although everyone wound up drenched, Jackson took the brunt of the waterworks.
“I was bum-rushed,” she said, still smiling. “Somebody sprayed me in my face. I know who. And I’m gonna get her. Celebrating this W together, it was fun. I had so much fun tonight.”
For Kersgieter and Franklin, who have been with the program for five seasons and can remember gut-wrenching details of the recent close calls against Baylor along with the losses by margins of 26, 33, 43 and 53 points that came before them, Wednesday’s win was another milestone.
“After Brandon said we’ve beat the entire Big 12 now, I looked at KB (Franklin) and I was like, ‘KB, we did it’ and hugged her,” Kersgieter said. “That’s a big moment for us. Me, him and KB have been through some times, but with moments like this, it’s all paying off. I can’t ask for a much better week.”
Four days earlier, Kersgieter became the program’s all-time leader in 3-point makes, and while she was honored on the court for that milestone, those who know her know that Wednesday’s win was so much sweeter.
So, now it’s about what comes next. Franklin acknowledged that the Jayhawks were “gonna enjoy this one” for a while but in the same breath provided a reminder that Wednesday’s win was just one game in an 18-game Big 12 grind that’s not stopping any time soon.
“This win feels great,” she said. “And it feels even better because of the way that we got it done. This just gives us great momentum moving forward. We’ve got to take it into Saturday. That’s another big game for us. And we want to keep it going and keep this train moving.”
Jackson agreed and said the Jayhawks know the recipe now.
“This just shows what we can do as a team and why the returners came back and why S’Mya came here,” she said. “I’m just happy we were able to show Jayhawk Nation what we can do when we play as a team and out-tough teams and have fun.”
Added Nichols: “It was a great win, the celebration was the celebration and it was a lot of fun, but we still have to go back to work.”
Next up, KU will play host to Oklahoma State at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
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