Tournament Time

Just minutes after Laurie Koehn, her teammates and coaches, and about 100 close friends and family found out they had earned Kansas State's highest-ever NCAA Tournament bid at an invitation-only watch party last weekend, she was asked what she knew of the Wildcats' first-round opponent: Mid-Continent Conference champion Valparaiso.

Just minutes after Laurie Koehn, her teammates and coaches, and about 100 close friends and family were asked found out they had earned Kansas State's highest-ever NCAA Tournament bid at an invitation-only watch party last weekend, she was asked what she knew of the Wildcats' first-round opponent: Mid-Continent Conference champion Valparaiso.

Beyond Bryce Drew's miraculous 3-pointer to pull an NCAA Tournament upset in the men's bracket several years ago -- or the consummate coaching legend in Homer Drew -- Koehn new nothing. "That's about it," she said. "I remember watching the men's tournament a few years ago, but that's all."

To fill Koehn in, and most of the college basketball world, Valpo finished the season a respectable 20-11, winning its conference tournament and earning a second-straight tournament bid. The Crusaders, who also made the men's tournament yet again this season, lost to Purdue in the opening-round in 2003.

"They're a very good basketball team," Coach Deb Patterson said. "They play Purdue every year and typically stay within four or five of them. A lot of folks here aren't familiar with them, but anyone who has watched Wisconsin-Green Bay play can attest to their style."

Patterson has seen plenty of UWGB, who battled Kansas State late into the second half before losing 80-75 early last season. That's enough to not only worry the Wildcats' seasoned coach, but also her veteran squad, who will be facing yet another obstacle when the game tips off Sunday at 11 a.m. in Williams Arena in Minneapolis. It will be televised live on ESPN2.

While the starting lineup has been to the last two NCAA Tournaments -- both as No. 3-seeds and both, some would say, ended prematurely -- they have never opened an NCAA Tournament as a No. 2-seed on the road. Traveling to Minneapolis for the Mideast first-round games will create some added pressure, Koehn said.

"I'm not even sure what conference (Valpo) plays in," Koehn said, "but they must deserve to be there. It'll be different. The last two years we've been able to host the first two rounds. It'll be a different experience going on the road. We're excited and looking forward to it."

But even as Kansas State says it is looking forward to playing at the arena affectionately known as "The Barn," where the court is slightly elevated, the feeling claustrophic and the atmosphere penetrating, Patterson said she wasn't looking forward to a potential second-round match-up.

In the No.10-No.7 game, Kansas State will watch UCLA take on host Minnesota. If the Golden Gophers win, the Wildcats will take on one of the Big 10's most dangerous teams on their home court. Add to that the fact the All-Big 10 guard Lindsay Whalen will be back after missing much of the season due to injury.

"It'll obviously be challenging to play Minnesota at Minnesota," Patterson said. "Thkey have great fans. They're expecting between 10,000 and 13,000 in the stands because they are so well-attended. But we've also been to Texas Tech, at Iowa State, at Texas -- and that's the advantage of competing in a league like ours. We're used to playing in hostile environments."

And who is to say hitting the road won't be a welcomed change of pace for Kansas State. The Wildcats lost at home in a second-round upset to Notre Dame at Bramlage Coliseum -- the only time in more than 30 games the Cats have lost at home. That loss, combined with a thumping at the hands of Old Dominion in the Sweet 16 two years ago, have a team largely comprised of juniors and seniors salivating.

"We're pumped to be back in this situation," said Koehn, a junior with an affinity for showing up come tourney-time. She's scored more than 20 points in four of five tournaments, including a school-record 27 points as a sophomore. "Maybe it's just the nature of the game, but it's the most exciting and fun time for the year. It's what you play all season for. It's the ultimate goal. You have the goal of winning the conference tournament, stuff like that, but the NCAA Tournament is what it's all about -- going as far as you can go."

While Koehn said the NCAA Tournament leaves the Big 12 Tournament in the shadows, the Wildcats were still stinging several days after getting ripped by eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma in Dallas in the tournament semi-finals. Junior guard Megan Mahoney said it was retribution getting a No. 2 seed despite the loss.

"We were pretty disappointed after the game," said Mahoney, who can become the third active Kansas State player to eclipse the 1000-point mark with 10 points on Sunday (Koehn, Wecker and Ohlde). We weren't' sure if we'd get the two-seed, but it's pretty awesome to hear when they announced our name."

That loss is looking less like a blemish, though, after seven Big 12 teams earned spots in the Big Dance -- trailing only the Big East with eight.

"That just speaks to what the coaches have been communicating all year long," Patterson said, "that our league is absolutely phenomenal. It's so strong, top to bottom."

Still, after Big 12 Tournament let-downs and NCAA upsets the last two years, Kansas State is weary to give in to the hype.

"It's just on paper," Mahoney said. "We have to go out and prove it. We didn't get the job done in Dallas. This is our opportunity -- we have to go out and prove it."

And that might best sum up what Kansas State is trying to accomplish in its romp toward the national championship -- living up to the expectations that come with a preseason top-5 ranking, a two-time Big 12 Player of the Year, two All-Americans and a veteran, battle-tested group.

"I think I would anticipate we're more experienced and that should carry over to the familiarity and less awe," Patterson said, "but it is the first time for this group to play on the road the first two rounds, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it. Now the challenge is to play great basketball and be prepared, particularly in the second game, to answer the challenge."


Purple Pride Top Stories