Why Byron grad Ayoka Lee will return for a seventh year at Kansas State

Apr. 10—MANHATTAN, Kan. — After six years in Manhattan, Kan., Ayoka Lee is going to have one more.

The Byron graduate and Kansas State University All-America center made the announcement Monday.

"I called (head coach Jeff Mittie) and told him I was coming back, and then I texted (teammates) Becca (Dallinger) and Gabby (Gregory)," said Lee, who led her team to a 26-8 record and an NCAA Tournament berth this season while averaging 19.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. "I told them that Senior Night was so fun, that I wanted to have another one. And I told them that we need to get a conference championship.

"Then I told the rest of my teammates. They were like, 'Don't mess with me.' I told them I'm not."

The thrill of Lee's announcement resonated all around the Kansas State basketball program and with its fans. The 6-foot-6 Lee is arguably the top player in Wildcats history. She is a three-time All-American, the nation's single-game scoring leader with 61, and the first player in Kansas State history to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds and block 300 shots in her career.

Her return immediately makes Kansas State a top contender again. But Mittie takes it a step further than that. He believes that Lee has positioned herself as the potential face of college women's basketball next season.

The timing is impeccable, with the women's game at an all-time high in terms of popularity. The recently completed NCAA women's tournament broke countless attendance records and its stars — particularly Iowa's Caitlin Clark and LSU's Angel Reese — drew media attention like never before.

"We are coming off an NCAA Tournament where attendance numbers were through the roof," Mittie said. "We saw here in Manhattan that the response was phenomenal with (some of the) tournaments being here. I think Ayoka is one of those players who, going into next year will have an opportunity to be the face of women's basketball. Certainly, you look at (Connecticut's Paige) Bueckers and (USC's) Juju Watkins. But I think that Ayoka is in that same category of that next potential player that can really help women's college basketball."

What Mittie is absolutely sure of is that Lee can help his program like nobody else on his roster.

Lee enters next season as an almost unheard of seventh-year player. Injuries have had almost everything to do with that. She was redshirted her freshman year at Kansas State while still rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in the Minnesota high school state tournament her senior year at Byron.

After then playing three straight spectacular seasons, Lee missed all of the 2022-23 season with another knee injury. She followed that with what she did this year, making a variety of All-America teams.

Mix in being granted an extra season after playing through a COVID-19 altered 2020-21 season. and here comes Year Seven for Lee.

One of her concerns was what to do academically with this final season. She's already got her undergraduate degree and will have achieved her masters degree next month. Lee says she is open to taking some classes more for enjoyment and enrichment this final go around.

Lee could have submitted her name for the WNBA draft or elected to play overseas next season. But the lure of one more season with her teammates was too much to pass up.

"My teammates are a big part of it," Lee said. "I think that's really the heart of it. And also coming off the year we had and knowing what we're capable of and hopefully winning a conference championship next season."