By Corbin McGuire
Ayoka Lee laughed when asked about her steady, even keel personality that K-State women’s basketball head coach Jeff Mittie has praised consistently this year.
She’s not always been that way.
“Growing up, my mom would definitely describe me as dramatic,” Lee said, letting out a laugh. “So, that’s a little bit different.”
What changed? Well, a few things.
To start, Lee said she would like to think it’s simply a matter of age.
“I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely been able to stay levelheaded more,” she said, as K-State (1-0) hosts UIC on Monday at 6:30 p.m. “I think it’s just come with growing up and being able to control what you can control and knowing that, if you do react (negatively) to some things, sometimes that’s not going to help the situation.”
Then there was the torn ACL the 6-foot-5 center suffered before she got to K-State last year. It set her back enough that she ended up redshirting, but Lee also said she believes it also set her up for success this season.
“I think it helped shape a lot (of where I’m at),” Lee said. “There were a lot of moments where I was frustrated.”
That frustration of rehab, of sitting on the sidelines at practice and of watching from the bench at games, eventually turned to a focus on what she could control. She approached each opportunity, limited as it might be, as an avenue to improve and prepare herself for her eventual return.
“I really got to observe what practices were like, the tempo and what our team needed in those practices. Being able to know how to give energy to my teammates and what drills we struggle with, so I know what we need more of at certain times,” she said. “Another big part was being able to work through really tough situations. Sometimes rehab wasn’t easy. Some of the exercises I had to do were just really hard and really tiring but being able to grind through that and know that it’s going to make me better and getting through those situations (was important).”
Often, Lee’s hardest work was away from her teammates.
Whether it be with strength and conditioning coach AJ Kloss, athletic trainer Becca Fitzgerald or a one-on-one workout with assistant coach Chris Carr, Lee pushed herself in small settings to be ready for the big ones.
“I think the biggest thing was just being able to physically get stronger, work on footwork and movements that I probably wouldn’t have been able to work on before,” Lee said. “From that, I was better than I would have been coming in. Being able to do workouts with Coach (Chris) Carr that were really hard sometimes, but they really helped me to get where I am today.”
Mittie agreed. There’s value in on-court experience, sure, but there were also areas she could work on that her classmates could not.
“From a strength standpoint, you’re able to stay in a strength-gaining mode, whereas, once we get to season, we’re pretty much in a maintenance phase,” Mittie said. “For a big kid like her, to be able to have a year of strength training, that certainly looks like it’s paid dividends so far.”
Lee, now a starter for K-State, did nothing but dominate her first two exhibitions.
She scored 18 points in 19 minutes — fouls were the only thing to stop her — on 8-of-11 from the field against Washburn. She followed that with 24 points on 9-of-12 from the field and 6-of-7 from the free throw line against Fort Hays State, against which Lee also grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked four shots. She opened the regular season with 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in K-State’s 73-48 win against Omaha.
Lee’s teammates all saw this coming. From crutches to controlling the paint at practices, her progress has been steady but, like the snowball effect, expanding. Lee constantly picked up new things along the way so that her gradual return could grow into a big impact.
Senior forward Peyton Williams used an example from a summer practice to enforce this point.
With no male practice players available at the time, Williams was forced to guard Lee, “which is a fun time for me, as you can imagine,” Williams said, sarcastically. At one point, Williams told Lee to stop using her upper body in the post, since her strength lies in her legs.
“The next play, she uses her legs and beats me,” Williams laughed. “We’ve all known she was going to be a beast whenever she comes back, so we were all just kind of waiting. For me, it was fun to see it. It wasn’t a surprise but it’s also fun to see that thing that you all knew was going to happen, finally happen.
“She’s a really good learner. She’s just a really hard worker. She enjoys the process of getting better, which is rare.”
Source: Kansas State Sports