Jim Souhan
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Ayoka Lee did not play organized basketball until the seventh grade.

Her high school never made it to the state tournament before she arrived.

She tore her ACL during the tourney her senior year, was rated a three-star recruit by some services and redshirted her freshman season in college to recover from the injury.

On Sunday, Lee set a record for Division I women's basketball by scoring 61 points as her unranked Kansas State team defeated No. 14 Oklahoma 94-65.

She's a junior from Byron (Minn.) High, which is about 10 miles west of Rochester. Those who knew her in high school were more thrilled than surprised by her latest achievement.

"I would have skipped any meeting or agenda I had today to talk about this kid," said Malia Schroeder, the activities director and assistant principal at Byron when Lee was in school and now the school principal. "From the moment you get to know her, she is one of the most wonderful, genuine adults you've ever met. She was involved in almost every club and activity that we have here. She was crowned homecoming queen by her peers. She truly embodies what makes a human being great.

"She was constantly doing things for our school, our community, whether through student council or mentoring ninth-graders."

Lee starred in volleyball, track and basketball. She had an older brother, Ahymad, who played basketball at Byron, and her younger brother, Ahjany, transferred to Totino-Grace and is committed to St. Thomas.

Darren Nelson coached Ayoka Lee at Byron, watches her college games and sends her congratulatory texts.

Nelson first saw her when she decided to play basketball in the seventh grade. Now 6-6, she was a head taller than the competition. "She could hardly run up and down the court without tripping over her own two feet," Nelson said. "She scored a lot, but her skills hadn't caught up to her body yet."

Byron’s Ayoka Lee (50) played against Sauk Centre in the 2018 in the Class 2A quarterfinals of the state tournament in 2018.
Byron’s Ayoka Lee (50) played against Sauk Centre in the 2018 in the Class 2A quarterfinals of the state tournament in 2018.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Lee would develop excellent hands and footwork. Against Oklahoma, she scored 61 points in 35 minutes without attempting a three-pointer.

She would average a double-double from ninth through 12th grade. Before her, the Byron scoring record was 1,299 points. She scored 2,287 points.

Her 61-point effort Sunday gave Minnesota high schoolers two of the three highest-scoring games in D-I women's basketball history. Rachel Banham of Lakeville North, who now plays for the Lynx, scored 60 for the Gophers in a 112-106 double-overtime victory over Northwestern on Feb. 7, 2016, tying a record held by Long Beach State post player Cindy Brown in 1987.

Sunday, Lee made 23 of her 30 field-goal attempts. She made 15 of 17 free-throw attempts and had 12 rebounds, three blocks and a steal. In her past two games against ranked opponents, Lee has totaled 99 points, 23 rebounds and six blocks in 70 minutes of play. She entered Sunday's game ranked third in the nation in scoring.

"She was a phenomenal student, president of the student council," Nelson said. "On the court, she was a quiet leader who became more vocal her last two seasons, when she was team captain. It's just an honor to have coached her.

"I wish I could say I taught her everything she knows, but she has kept improving because of her work ethic. Hopefully, we'll be seeing her in the WNBA soon."

Schroeder said the Monday morning conversations among her staff revolved around Lee's big game.

"She holds records here for track and field, volleyball and basketball," Schroeder said. "She was always looking to give any kind of accolades that came her way to her teammates."

Sunday, Lee said, "I'm just so thankful for the people around me. For my teammates and my coaches trusting me."

Lee is eligible for the next WNBA draft, but Nelson said she's considering returning for her senior season so she can finish her graduate degree in couple and family therapy.

"She is a remarkable story," Nelson said. "This couldn't happen to a better kid."