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Sunday’s win over K-State both a culmination & the beginning

As KU's veterans experience a day they always dreamed of, freshman star hopes this is just the beginning

6 min read
KU senior Holly Kersgieter waits for play to begin during the Jayhawks' 58-55 home win over No. 10 Kansas State on Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse. [Chance Parker photo]

One Jayhawk spent her entire career building toward Sunday’s massive moment, battling tears, trials, disappointment and doubt to get there.

The other Jayhawk came to Kansas to create that exact moment — and others like it — and now, 27 games into her college career, already has seen it come to fruition.

The fact that the two players — senior guard Holly Kersgieter and star freshman S’Mya Nichols — got to experience it together, on the same day and at such a crucial time, only added to the magnitude of the moment.


Sure, Sunday’s 58-55 Kansas win over 10th-ranked Kansas State was big for this team this season, as the Jayhawks fight for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But there were elements of it that were far bigger than that even and that’s what made Sunday so special.

“I was not expecting that,” Kersgieter told R1S1 Sports after the win of the crowd of 9,007 that seemed at least twice that big. “I was looking around at one point and I was just like, ‘This is it; this is the best moment I’ve ever had in Allen Fieldhouse.’”

That was before she even knew whether her team would come out on top. But that, in itself, speaks to why Sunday was so big.

“This is a rivalry game, we’re playing a top-10 team, we’re fighting to get to the tournament, this is literally what it’s about it,’” Kersgieter remembered thinking when she first woke up. “And yet I wasn’t emotional. I wasn’t gonna cry. It was fun. It was awesome. This is why you play sports.”

Play they did.

Nichols lit up the Wildcats for 22 points and a couple of assists in 38+ minutes. Kersgieter added 10 points and 7 rebounds, with half of those coming at money time, in the final 3 minutes of the tight game.

The Jayhawks got a big game from senior center Taiyanna Jackson (11 points, 7 rebounds, 8 blocks) and just enough from everyone else to walk away with their second top-10 win of the season and sixth victory in their last seven outings.

The crowd and the atmosphere were every bit as good as the Jayhawks themselves.

It was probably close to a 70-30 split between KU and KSU fans, and both sides were loud. But when it came down to winning time, it was the Jayhawks (16-11 overall, 9-7 Big 12) who gave their fans the most to cheer about.

Long before that, however, Kersgieter and Nichols said they got a lift from the energy and excitement in the building.

Although it had her smiling throughout, Kersgieter said the weight and significance of what surrounded her and her teammates did not fully hit her until halftime, when the Jayhawks trailed 30-28 but knew they were very much in the game.

Then, at one point in the second half, KU’s all-time 3-point queen caught herself taking in a little more of what was happening off the court.

“Oh my God, this is KU,” she thought to herself. “This is insane. This is a picture. Somebody take a picture!”

Nichols said the moment she first realized just how big the environment was hit her during the third quarter, as well. She powered through it and stayed as locked in as she could until finally cracking late in the game.

“It was the last two minutes,” she said of her soak-it-all-in moment. “K-State took a while to come out (from the timeout) and the crowd was just cheering, the music was going and I just kept turning in circles and seeing everybody. It was awesome.”

The fact that those last two minutes belonged to KU made the timing of Nichols’ realization that much sweeter. But, for her, Sunday was about KU’s veterans like Kersgieter, Jackson and Zakiyah Franklin getting what they deserved.

After years of being Big 12 bottom dwellers and playing in front of a mostly empty Allen Fieldhouse on most nights, the place was full for them. The place was loud because of them. The game mattered not just to them but also to the 9,000 others who chose to spend their Sunday with them.

“I love that they got that moment,” Nichols said. “I love that they got that crowd and that energy and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

KU freshman S'Mya Nichols (12) and senior Taiyanna Jackson (1) celebrate the Jayhawks' hot start in Sunday's win over K-State. [Chance Parker photo]

While she appreciated her younger teammate’s perspective, Kersgieter said Sunday was so much bigger than that.

KU legend Lynette Woodard was in the building. Some of the seats were filled by potential future Jayhawks, who were in town for a recruiting visit.

And it meant just as much to Kersgieter to make the experience for them, “a small part of the future” as it did for her to capture the moment for herself the other KU veterans.

While Nichols was genuine in deflecting the love to those upperclassmen, it was not lost on her what having this moment so early in her KU career meant to her.

After all, visions of days like this, games like this and crowds like this, were a part of what convinced Nichols to pick Kansas when she could’ve chosen to play her college basketball pretty much anywhere else in the country.

She wanted to help KU build. She wanted to be part of the reason for the rising interest in the program. She wanted to help bring the big time to the program.

“I think about it every day because we are 100% capable of having that here all the time,” Nichols said. “Today was a show of what it could be.”

She continued: “It was a surreal feeling. You see that the crowd is capable of coming out and supporting us and I feel like we definitely delivered. We didn’t disappoint them, and I hope it continues to grow.”

Through all of Sunday’s smiles and screams, big baskets and minor blunders and 39 minute and 50 seconds of intense action, the game came down to one final possession and the last 10 seconds.

With KU leading by three and Kansas State having one final chance to tie, the Jayhawks dug deep to get that one last stop, setting off a celebration on the court and scenes of euphoria in the stands.

“That roar you get here, late in a game when you go on a run or get a stop, we don’t get that a lot. We’re girls,” Kersgieter said. “But that was great. We just had a lot of fun today. Every huddle it was, we’re tired, we’re in pain, but we’re in it together; it was just like a pick-me-up, fight-back moment. We were just having fun out there.”

Next up, KU travels to UCF on Wednesday night before returning home on Saturday for a Senior Day showdown with Big 12 leader Oklahoma.

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