Cats take to the road for midweek showdowns

For the Kansas State women's basketball team, mid-February has been its demise the past two seasons. Riding top-10 and even top-5 rankings deep into the regular season, insufficient depth and experience have plagued Coach Deb Patterson's troops. Two years ago the Cats were thumped by Old Dominion in the Sweet 16 in Milwaukee, dumping the Wildcats on their dream quest to the Final Four. Last year it was even more disappointing, an upset loss on their home floor to Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

But even before that loss to the Irish, the late-season meltdown had largely begun. The Wildcats beat vaunted Texas at home but struggled down the stretch, getting railed by Texas Tech on the road and again in the Big 12 Tournament. A No. 2 ranking late in the season melted away to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, helping lead to the Cats' demise at the hands of Irish coach Muffet McGraw.

This season appears different, though, at least on the surface. Sure, everybody is back from that team and most of the Wildcats have been playing together since the magical run began more than two years ago. A few players have come and gone, but unmatched experience by the big four -- Kendra Wecker, Nicole Ohlde, Laurie Koehn and Megan Mahoney -- has combined in a synthetic blend with youthful exuberance of Claire Coggins and Twiggy McIntyre, forming something the Wildcats haven't had: a complete team.

That team will try to build on a six-game winning streak when the Wildcats (19-3, 10-1) take on Texas A&M (8-15, 1-11) at 7 tonight from Reed Arena in College Station, Texas.

"It's still kind of early, but we're fresher," Patterson said. "We're playing more people."

That's been evident in the most recent of weeks, with McIntyre subbing liberally for guard Chelsea Domenico and Coggins subbing for Mahoney and Wecker -- and even Koehn -- when the defense or tiredness warrants. And those freshmen have been a catalyst for the Wildcats.

In the Wildcats' dominating route of Nebraska, Coggins played a season-high 21 minutes and scrappily put together a game in which she scored 12 points, had three rebounds, three steals and made several hussel plays that don't appear on the final box score. McIntyre, meanwhile, electrified the Bramlage Coliseum crowd with her penetration. She scored 13 points, including three 3-pointers, in just 14 minutes.

"With Claire, it's the strength she bring sand the physicalness she brings," Patterson said. "It's just hard for us when we have our real small guards in."

Wecker admitted after the Nebraska game that her and her veteran cast were working on Coggins' interview skills -- several "It was tight"s and "It was cool"s slipped from her lips, but that appears to be the fiery 6-foot guard's demeanor. Watch her closely during a game, and when she misses a shot or commits a turnover, it's a "crap" or a "shoot" she's mouthing off.

"I just want to go after every loose ball there is," Coggins said. "I just have to come out and play chaotic on the defensive end."

While Coggins and McIntyre, obvious when looking at the Bramlage crowd, bring an unmatched intensity to the floor, Ohlde -- the veteran -- said they even serve to get her riled up.

"They have a huge impact in that they get us going," she said. "They bring electricity to the court."

While it's unlikely much electricity will be needed for the Cats to slip by A&M, which has just one player in Toccara Williams (15.7 ppg) who presents offensive firepower, the Wildcats should instead have a welcomed break this week. Kansas State has an extra day off before traveling to Columbia, Mo. to take on another second-tier Big 12 team Sunday at 1 p.m.

It will be hard not to look ahead for Kansas State, even more than a week down the road. After Missouri, the Cats tussel with a struggling Iowa State team in Bramlage -- where Kansas State has been nearly invincible -- before what can essentially be called a two-game playoff for the Big 12 regular-season crown. The Cats finish going to Texas on Feb. 29 and playing host to Texas Tech on March 3.

The men, meanwhile, have that dastardly road streak still intact. After inching to within three of Texas Tech in the second half, the Wildcats' road woes continued with yet another loss away from Bramlage. Back-to-back road games, however, means Kansas State can shake that elusive monkey -- maybe call it a gorilla -- from its back. Kansas State (11-10, 3-7) tips at Nebraska (14-7, 4-6) at 7 p.m. The game is televised by Fox Sports Midwest.

The last time these two teams met, a surging Wildcat squad ripped the Huskers 78-61 in Manhattan on Feb. 4. But since then, the Huskers have caught fire, including a 74-55 thumping of then-No. 12 Kansas.

But perhaps this is a new Kansas State team. The Cats have lost close road battles with Tech and Colorado, and have been dominating at home over the Huskers. They beat an Iowa State team by 31 points which rebounded to beat then-No. 11 Texas.

After averaging only 60 points in their first 6 conference games, the Wildcats have pumped that up to 80 points per game over the last four games, including scorching the nets at a 48 percent clip from 3-point range.

Senior Tim Ellis is averaging close to 20 points per game during that span, and one of the front-runners for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, Jeremiah Massey, is pumping in 18.5 points per game. Senior Jarrett Hart has remained steady as well, increasing his per game average to 15.0.

While Kansas State is about a hair's-length away from getting eliminated from the postseason, barring a major run in the Big 12 Tournament, there is still much at stake. The Huskers are a legitimate NCAA Tournament bubble team while Kansas State, if they could manage to finish with 15 or 16 wins could be seeking an NIT bid. At worst, both teams are jockeying for positioning heading to Dallas for the Big 12 Tourney.

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