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The Storm are playing in a new arena this season.
If you didn’t know the name Ayoka Lee by this point in the women’s college basketball season, you do now. The Kansas State junior center lit up the scoreboard, and then Twitter feeds and TV highlight reels on Sunday, setting the NCAA’s single-game scoring record with 61 points in the Wildcats’ 94-65 win over then-No. 14 Oklahoma.
The performance may have given Lee national recognition overnight, but she has been befuddling opponents and attracting WNBA attention all season long.
In the Wildcats’ season opener in early November, Lee scored 43 points against Central Arkansas, at the time setting a new Kansas State scoring record and a career high. Two weeks ago, she nearly led the Wildcats to an upset of then-No. 7 Iowa State, recording 38 points and 11 rebounds in Kansas State’s eventual 73-70 loss.
As Lee continues to put up big numbers this season, especially against ranked opponents, speculation about her WNBA Draft status increases. While she is eligible for the 2022 draft, she said Tuesday she plans to stay at K-State for another year. Lee, 21, doesn’t like to think about the future. She knows all too well how quickly things can change.
In spring 2018, Lee had committed to play basketball for K-State and was ready to take her game to the next level. But during a game at the State Tournament in Minnesota, Lee jumped in the air on a routine basketball play, landed awkwardly and tore her ACL. The Byron High School senior was beside herself.
“It was kind of like, how does this work now?” Lee says. “Like, I’m coming, but I’m not able to do anything. I have all this stuff I have to take care of just with this injury.”
Lee shifted her attention to the recovery process, but it didn’t start off as she hoped. At first, she rehabbed at home in Byron with limited resources. Her physical therapy wasn’t as intense or thorough as it needed to be, so by the time she got to Kansas State, she was lagging behind. Instead of dwelling on it, she got right to work.
By January, Lee was cleared to participate on the practice squad. The 6-foot-6 center spent the rest of her freshman year at K-State doing individual workouts and getting in extra time with the strength coach, trainers and basketball coaches.
“She’s been like that since day one, even when she was non-contact when she first got here,” says K-State head coach Jeff Mittie. “We could just see how talented she was and how hard she worked. She’s the same person every day. What you see is what you get with her.”
In the fall of 2019, she finally stepped onto the court as a Wildcat, and the work she had put in quickly paid off. As a redshirt freshman, Lee averaged 15.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes per game and was named 2019-20 Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
“I probably wasn’t on too many scouting reports that season,” Lee says. “It was just one of those things where I feel like a lot of college freshmen might come in wanting to do [well]. I honestly didn’t have a ton of expectations. … It was just really exciting to come in right away and be able to have that impact.”
Peyton Williams, a senior forward at Kansas State that season, saw Lee develop in front of her eyes. A double-threat tandem on the court, together they led the team in scoring and rebounds.
“I know that Yokie is a great person and a hard worker, even as a freshman,” says Williams, who now plays overseas for Hainaut in France. “Even when she’s not on the court now, she’s getting things done, doing what she needs to be doing. You never have to worry about her doing the little things and doing the important things. I think she’s got her head on straight, and she’s been a leader from a young age.”
After Sunday’s historic performance, Lee is second in the nation in scoring, just behind Iowa sensation Caitlin Clark with 25.5 points per game, third in blocks (3.5) and 20th in rebounds (10.9), all while shooting 58.6 percent from the field. Against Oklahoma, Lee showed just how scary good and efficient she can be, going 23-for-30 (76.7 percent) from the field and 15-for-17 (88.2 percent) from the free-throw line.
ESPN women’s college basketball analyst Brenda VanLengen has watched Lee’s game evolve over the past two seasons.
“Her size is tough to contend with,” says VanLengen. “She’s a true center. She’s got good footwork, she runs pretty well, good work ethic — preparing for games and also on the court. She works hard for position. That’s what sets interior players apart. She works to get rebound position, to get post-up position, to pin her defender as the ball is reversed. Those things are not easy every night when you get all the attention from defenders.”
The ability to hit a smooth 15-foot jumper is just another weapon Lee has added to her arsenal this season.
“A year ago, people really tried to front her a lot. They were really trying to deny her catches, and a lot of her scoring was just on angle plays, lob plays,” Mittie says. “The evolution of her game has been the ability to score over people and to do it eight, 10 feet away from the basket.”
Kansas State’s improvement from a 9-18 team in 2020-21 to a 15-4 squad that’s third in Big 12 play this year is also due to the players Mittie has recruited. Freshman guards Serena Sundell, Jaelyn Glenn and Brylee Glenn have stepped up to provide perimeter help so that, when Lee is double- or triple-teamed, she can kick the ball out with confidence, knowing any one of them can hit the shot.
“Because of Lee’s presence inside, you have to pay extra attention to her,” VanLengen says. “That means players on the perimeter are gonna have opportunities. If they’re shooting well — which, right now, they’re shooting really well from 3-point range — then you can’t double- and triple-team Lee. To me, that’s one of the most dangerous combinations in a team.”
Lee’s familiarity with K-State’s Big 12 opponents has translated into confidence for herself and her team. She senses a different vibe this season, a kind of synergy on the court that was cultivated back in June, when Mittie would be working late and catch players practicing or working out at the gym.
“I’m just so proud of them, honestly. Just like being able to come in and put the work in, and just have a drive where they want to come in and have that impact is great,” Lee says. “I think we have big goals. I think if we keep coming every day, keep working hard, take it one game at a time, I think we can go far.”
Still, as well as Lee and the Wildcats have been playing, questions linger about her overall physical health and long-term durability. The bulky, gray brace she wears on her leg is a constant reminder of her injury.
“I think ACLs can be tricky,” she says. “I think a lot of people have lingering repercussions from it. It’s just kind of one of those things.”
Lee has been proactively working to extend the longevity of her career, but she’s not thinking about what might or might not happen down the road. Her approach to everything in life, on or off the court, is to be where her feet are, to keep learning, growing and enjoying each step along the way.
“She’s in the moment, that’s one of her strengths,” Mittie says. “She just wants to enjoy practice with her teammates.”
When Williams came home from France during the holidays, she was hoping to go to a K-State home game. It ended up getting canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, but she was able to visit with her former teammates.
“I got to see [Yokie], and she was mature when I knew her, but she’s been taking steps. I think that’s also a testament to her, the person and player, is that she understands that there’s always room to improve,” Williams says. “I mean, that’s one of the greatest lessons in life, first of all — you’re never done growing. But also, as a player to understand that, I think that’s really important and that contributes to her being in the moment.”
Lee has three years of NCAA eligibility left at K-State, because of the year she sat out and the extra year players gained from the COVID-19 pandemic. She has already graduated with a degree in psychology and is pursuing her masters in couples and family therapy. While she’s open to the WNBA and thinks it would be a great opportunity, she wants to to be a sports psychologist someday. Tearing her ACL helped her gain a better understanding of athletes’ mental health.
“It’s been a blessing,” Lee says. “It’s reminded me not to take anything for granted. To be where my feet are and enjoy every part of the process.”
Now that Lee has definitively etched her name into the NCAA record books, people will continue to speculate about her basketball future. But her goal is to finish the season strong and lead the Wildcats on a run in the NCAA Tournament. She’s focused on the moment, and that’s as far as she’s willing to look ahead.
Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.
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