January 10, 2018 07:23 PM
(ABC 6 News) – The Byron Bears girls basketball team is 7-5 this year—but when senior center Ayoka Lee is on the floor, it makes the ultimate difference for the Bears.
“(Ayoka has) really stepped into that leadership role,” Bears head coach Darren Nelson said. “Being a senior and being a captain (for a second-straight year), you can just see her communicating better with her teammates, more than I’ve seen the last few years.”
For those who follow Byron or Southeast Minnesota girls basketball, Lee is the player who probably comes to mind right away.
“She’s been a starter since her 9th grade year, and she’s been averaging double-doubles (since then),” Nelson said. “Right now, she’s averaging about 26 points per game and 17 rebounds per game.”
“She’s a tough match-up for opposing teams. She’s so physical and teams have to double and triple-team her.”
In her three-plus years of high school varsity basketball, Lee has seen it all—she’s played in nearly every game and is the school’s all-time leading scorer, but this season has been different for her, as she suffered her first serious injury on the basketball court.
“It’s been a new experience this year,” Lee acknowledges.“Being hurt, I’ve never been hurt before so that was something new.”
On December 14, Lee sprained her left ankle in the first half of the Bears game against Class AAA’s state-ranked Red Wing Wingers—she missed the second-half of that game and the next three games after that.
“I just shot it and when I came down, it just rolled,” Lee said. “I rolled my right ankle the previous week, but rolling this one, I was like ‘ok, this hurts a lot more.’ I tried to run but it was definitely different.”
In Lee’s absence, in games where she did not play the second-half, Byron finished 0-4—so for Lee, sitting out and watching basketball from the bench wasn’t easy.
“It was really hard,” Lee said. “It’s a different perspective. You realize what we need to do better. I wanted to play, but I knew when my coaches told me it was more important to get better than to make it worse.”
“Our kids, we haven’t played a whole lot without her presence in the middle offensively and defensively,” Nelson added. “It’s going to make us better in the long run. Other kids had to step up (when she was gone), but we missed her a little bit.”
After a two-week hiatus, Lee returned to the floor—with Lee, the Bears are 7-1, and in those seven wins, they’re outscoring their opponents by an average of 20.1 points per game.
“It feels amazing (to be back,” Lee, whose first name is African for “Joy,” said with joy. “I think it’s kind of hard not to take it for granted when you’ve never been injured, but being able to come back, and get back in the flow of things and play with your teammates, it feels amazing.”
“It’s awesome to have her back,” Nelson said. “The kids are glad to have her back, and we’re playing well right now and we want to keep it rolling.”
Lee’s basketball career is far from over—following graduation from high school, she’ll head to Manhattan, Kansas to play Division I basketball at Kansas State University.
Before her time in Manhattan begins though, Lee and the other six seniors on the Byron roster want to help lead the Bears to their first state tournament in school history.
“(I like to) live in the present,” Lee said. “Play as hard as possible for this team because I’m never going to get to play with them again after this year is over. Really just play without a limit, because I don’t think we should limit ourselves as a team.”
Lee and the Bears return to the floor on Thursday versus Class A’s no.2 Goodhue Wilcats.
Updated: January 10, 2018 07:23 PM
Created: January 10, 2018 05:30 PM
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