Wildcats Set to Defend Big 12 Title

Kansas State's 2008-09 season is set to begin on Friday night with "Madness in Manhattan" and the defending Big 12 women's basketball regular season champions are set to make another run for the crown. The following is a season preview of Deb Patterson's 13th K-State squad.

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Kansas State surprised the Big 12 Conference last season with a stunning reversal of fortune to capture the second Big 12 regular season title in school history. The Wildcats tallied 22 wins during the 2007-08 campaign and made the 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, advancing to the second round for the fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

Head coach Deb Patterson enters her 13th season at the helm of the K-State program, after garnering Big 12 Coach of the Year honors for the second time in her career and finishing as a finalist for the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award. The 22 wins from a season ago was the sixth time in the last seven seasons that Patterson has led the Wildcats to a 20-win campaign.

K-State’s title defense will be led by eight returning letterwinners, including two All-Big 12 honorees, and four fresh faces have been added to the roster to aid in the defense of the Big 12 crown and the hunt for an 11th appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats’ backcourt will attempt to replace the production of departed honorable mention AP All-American and leading scorer Kimberly Dietz with a multitude of options and experience.

The first option to replace Dietz’s production will be 2008 All-Big 12 first team selection, Shalee Lehning. The senior from Sublette, Kan., enters the season as an All-American candidate in her own right, as she set career-highs in every offensive category during the 2007-08 season, including a school single-season record of 203 assists to become the first player in school history to distribute 200 or more assists in a season. She concluded the season as the Big 12 leader in assists and finished 11th in the nation in the category. Among the national assist leaders, Lehning led the group in rebounds per game with 7.6 and was sixth among the group in points per game with 11.3.

Lehning is on the verge of climbing three significant career lists in school history during her final season in a Wildcat uniform. She is ranked second in career assists with 571 and needs just 19 to pass Megan Mahoney for the school record. She is also ranked ninth in career rebounds with 703 and is 35th in career points with 868.

Emerging as a scoring option at the end of the 2008 season was senior Kelsey Nelson. The product of Riley, Kan., took advantage of increased minutes during the NCAA Tournament to score a career-high 20 points in her postseason debut in the first round against Tennessee-Chattanooga and followed that effort with 12 points against Louisville in the second round.

Nelson continued her growth during the Wildcats’ two-game European tour, as she tallied 12 points against the U-18 Czech Republic national team and 23 points against the U-20 Czech Republic national team. During the 2008-09 season, she will attempt to become a regular contributor to the K-State lineup during her final season with the Wildcats.

The Wildcats will look to junior Kari Kincaid to again provide the long distance touch she has displayed during her first two seasons at K-State. The 5-10 guard from Andover, Kan., knocked down a career-high 37 3-point field goals last season, including a career-high effort of six against Michigan State during the Caribbean Challenge in Cancun, Mexico. Kincaid will compete for a starting role again this season, as she started the final 22 games of the 2007-08 season.

Also returning to the K-State lineup are sophomores Kelsey Hill and Shalin Spani. Hill, a product of Lenexa, Kan., registered 1.3 points per game and shot .364 from beyond the three-point line in 12 games during her debut season. Spani saw action in 24 contests, including 12 Big 12 games. She tallied 1.5 points per game on a .387 field goal percentage. Both will continue their development and attempt to expand their roles during their second seasons with the Wildcats.

The Wildcats bolstered the backcourt with the signing of one of the top guards in the nation, as Patterson welcomes in freshman Alina Voronenko. The product of Otterville, Mo., was rated as the 53rd best player in the nation and the 17th-best guard by hoopgurlz.com. During her time at Smithton High School, the 6-2 guard/forward carded 1,784 career points. During her senior campaign, Voronenko averaged 21.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per contest.

K-State welcomes back an experienced core to its frontcourt and will blend in three newcomers to the low post, providing Patterson with more options on the low blocks.

Leading the frontcourt will be All-Big 12 second team selection, Marlies Gipson. The senior from McPherson, Kan., recovered from a knee injury that derailed her 2006-07 season to become an all-league selection and post career-highs in points (11.7 ppg; 375), rebounds (7.5 rpg; 241), blocks (2.2 bpg; 70), field goal percentage (.508) and free throw percentage (.723). Her total of 70 blocked shots set the school single-season record.

Gipson can ascend the school career lists in three categories during the upcoming season, including: scoring (871 points; 34th), rebounding (589; 13th) and blocks (171; second). She is ranked eighth for career blocked shots in Big 12 history.

Another returning starter to the frontcourt is junior Ashley Sweat. The native of McPherson, Kan., was K-State’s fourth-leading scorer a season ago at 11.2 points per game. During her first two seasons, Sweat has registered 746 career points and ranks 39th in school history in the category. Sweat will look to continue her versatile style of interior and exterior scoring in the upcoming season.

The Wildcats welcome back an experienced defensive presence and a vocal leader in senior Danielle Zanotti. After starting the first 10 games of the season, Zanotti was moved to the bench to provide a defensive stopper off the bench. The product of Yukon, Okla., earned her second straight Academic All-Big 12 first team citation, as she recorded a perfect 4.0 GPA in both the first and second semesters a year ago.

Zanotti should provide K-State with a versatile defender who can matchup with guards on the perimeter or forwards in the post. She will also look to continue to attack the glass like she did during the Wildcats’ two-game trip in Europe, where she tallied 10 rebounds.

For the first time in almost four years, K-State has significant depth in the frontcourt with the addition of three freshmen: Branshea Brown, Jalana Childs and Jenny Gilbertson.

Brown joins the Wildcats from Colleton County High School in Walterboro, S.C. She is the first player in the program’s history to hail from the state of South Carolina. Brown carded 15.4 points per game, 16.1 rebounds, 4.8 blocks, 3.1 assists and 4.1 steals during her senior season. At the conclusion of the season, Brown was named to the 2007-08 South Carolina Basketball Coaches’ Association All-State  team for Class 4A. She was also selected to play in the Carolinas All-Star Classic in Charlotte, N.C. at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Childs comes to K-State from Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Fla. She was a 2007 All-Metro County selection and averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Gilbertson was a 2007-08 Minnesota Associated Press All-State first team selection from Winona Cotter High School. During her four year career, Gilbertson averaged 15.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.3 steals. She finished her career as the school’s all-time leader in points (1,880), rebounds (830) and blocks (293).

Kansas State will open the 2008-09 season with an exhibition game against Washburn on Sunday, Nov. 2 at 1 p.m. The Wildcats will begin its home slate on Sunday, Nov. 23 against UTSA. For tickets, visit www.kstatesports.com or call (800) 221-CATS.