KU Women in WNIT Semis

It may be April Fools Day, but this is no joke. For the first time in school history, the Kansas women's basketball team will be playing in April and competing in the WNIT Final Four.

The Jayhawks (21-13) battle Illinois State (27-7, 15-3 in Missouri Valley Conference) at 7 p.m. tonight at Allen Fieldhouse.

After winning three games in the WNIT and eight ot its last 10, KU is bursting with momentum heading into Wednesday's semifinal. The Jayhawks are quite simply on a mission after being left out of the NCAA tournament.

"It has everything to do with that," said junior guard Sade Morris. "We kind of messed it up for ourselves because we lost games we shouldn't have lost and (then) we went on that run.

"But we're in this tournament now. We said from the get-go, ‘We're in it to win it.'"

KU will first have to get by Illinois State. If they do, then the ‘Hawks will play the winner of South Florida-Boston College in the WNIT championship game on Saturday.

The Jayhawks are coming off a 78-69 victory at hostile New Mexico on Monday, while Illinois State enters the contest after a 66-55 victory over Indiana. The regular-season MVC champions have now won three straight in the WNIT after previously dropping three of their last four games.

Illinois State is led by three-time conference player ot year and honorable mention All-American guard Kristi Cirone. She paces the Redbirds with 18.6 points per game and 66 threes, while also adding 4.0 rebounds per contest. Up front, ISU is spearheaded by 6-5 junior center Nicolle Lewis, who averages 10.1 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds.

KU coach Bonnie Henrickson is very impressed with Robin Pingeton's Redbirds.

"They're good," Henrickson said. "They're well-coached. They run, they guard. They've held people to (54.7) points (in the WNIT tournament). I think everyone (WNIT opponents' Louisiana Tech, Marquette and Indiana) is 15 below their average, 32 percent field goal shooting, 23 percent from three. They've done a good job defensively."

So has Kansas. The Jayhawks are playing tenacious defense, holding their three WNIT foes (Creighton, Arkansas, New Mexico) to just 34.2 percent field goal shooting, including 28.3 percent beyond the arc.

Henrickson and her players point to defense as the key to turning the season around. KU had lost eight of nine games before winning eight of its last 10.

"She (Henrickson) always said, ‘Defense is what wins games,'" Morris said. "It took losing, running, screaming, everything, but we finally bought into it."

Henrickson is certainly proud of her team for progressing so much since late February and advancing to the WNIT semifinals.

"It feels good," Henrickson said. "It's a great reward for the kids for the February performance and March. It's a validation of what they've bought into and what they've been able to accomplish and continue to play well and play together. In a sense, we're really playing for each other. Not that we didn't play for each other, but it just seems different. I've watched it kind of evolve. They've never been selfish, but it's a different sense of emotion and team chemistry now in the last month."

The Jayhawks have indeed embraced their roles. On offense, that means getting the ball to leading scorers Danielle McCray (21.2 ppg) and Morris (12.7 ppg). McCray, an honorable mention All-American, has been on fire during the WNIT, averaging 30.7 points in three games while shooting 53.3 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three (10-20).

"She's playing with so much confidence," Henrickson said.

Henrickson believes Jayhawk fans will show up in droves to watch McCray and her teammates play tonight.

"I'd be shocked if we don't have 5 or 6,000 people," Henrickson said. "The administration and (marketing staff) on campus are trying to do some things to get people here. There's not a lot of (teams) playing right now, and I think that helps us and heightens the sense of awareness of what we're trying to do."

"I don't think ( a big crowd) will bother Illinois State, (but) I think it will really help our kids,"  Henrickson added. I know our kids are better in front of a great crowd. ... The energy and extra bounce our kids get from it is exciting."

Henrickson and her players are certainly excited about the resurgence of Kansas women's basketball.

"Now  (people) can believe in us," Morris said.

The Jayhawk Nation and national media will believe in KU even more if Kansas beats Illinois State and then wins the WNIT title game on Saturday.

"We're ready to play," Morris said, "and we're gong to take (the championship) home."

Notes:

SUTHERLAND RISING

KU has been boosted by the play of freshman forward Aishah Sutherland. The California native is averaging 12.7 points and 10.0 rebounds during the WNIT. She's also shooting a scorching 57.1 percent from the field. For the season, the 6-2 Sutherland is averaging 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. She actually dunked during halftime warmups of the New Mexico game on Monday night.

No KU women's player in school history has ever dunked in a real game. Sutherland dunked in a high school practice, while junior forward Porscha Weddington threw one down in practice her freshman season.

MS. RELIABLE

The Jayhawks are also getting great game management and leadership from senior point guard Ivana Catic. She's had 20 assists in the WNIT while committing just two turnovers.

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