NCAA Bid Completes Remarkable Turnaround
When the women’s NCAA Tournament committee made the unprecedented move Sunday of announcing the final eight teams in consideration for at-large bids, Nebraska players and coaches exhaled.
Nebraska, long considered a bubble team, wasn’t mentioned.
“If I’m being honest, when our name wasn’t on the list, I think that kind of gave me a little more confidence our name was going to be called today,” Nebraska senior Emily Wood said, “just because we had beaten the other Big Ten teams on that list.”
Yet as the Huskers gathered at Williams’ home on Monday evening to watch the selection show, nerves became frayed when all but two games had been revealed, and Nebraska’s name hadn’t been uttered.
“We were sweating a bit,” Wood said. “There’s a couple of videos out there, and it kind of looks like we were giving up hope a little, but I think deep down we were still trusting our name would be called.”
Indeed, in the second-to-final game revealed, Nebraska’s name appeared, meaning the Huskers will compete in the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time in school history.
The initial reaction, Williams said, was “immediate joy,” with a healthy dose of screaming and jumping and … not paying full attention.
“About 5 minutes later a couple of girls turned and looked, ‘Who do we even play?’ ” Williams said.
Nebraska (21-10, 11-5 Big Ten Conference) is the No. 10 seed in the Kansas City Regional and will play No. 7 seed Arizona State (21-12, 10-8 Pac-12) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Austin, Texas. The winner will advance to face either No. 2 seed Texas or No. 15 seed Maine on Monday.
It’s the first NCAA appearance for Nebraska since 2015, when Wood and Jasmine Cincore were freshmen.
Now they’re seniors, having helped the Huskers this season to a remarkable turnaround after last season’s 7-22 finish in Williams’ first season as coach.
“After the season we had last year, we were just working on being the best we could be, and whatever happened this year, happened,” Nebraska guard Hannah Whitish said. “But then some of the wins we got, and seeing all the Ws in the book we had, I think it gave this team more confidence.
“Even in the summer, all the work that we put in, just seeing how hard everybody was working – I had never been around that, so I knew it was going to be something special.”
Williams earned Big Ten Coach-of-the-Year honors for leading the turnaround, and she’s a semifinalist for the Werner Ladder Naismith National Coach of the Year award, too. Given last season’s record, Williams admits an NCAA Tournament appearance wasn’t necessarily on her list of expectations in Year Two.
“If I’m going to be 100 percent honest, it’s not really something that we felt like was probably … we knew that’s what we were building toward,” Williams said, “but to expect that to happen that way this year, we probably wouldn’t have said, ‘Yeah, that’s a guaranteed goal.’
“But I will tell you this team sets their sights high, and they know how hard they worked in the offseason. I think as we were progressing through the nonconference, then it started to become a more realistic goal for this group fairly early on in the season.”
Nebraska plays its best basketball, Williams said, when the Huskers have balanced scoring. While some players, like Whitish, are capable of big scoring nights, Nebraska generally lacks star power.
That, combined with belief and confidence, has been a big reason for the marked improvement, Williams said.
“They just started to develop a lot of confidence, and that started with the work ethic this group put in during the offseason,” Williams said. “With not having any super stars, not having that dynamic on the team, it’s been a team that’s genuinely been for each other and has been excited for each other’s successes. I think that has created kind of a chemistry and culture that has allowed our team to really turn the corner.”
While the women’s committee doesn’t use the quadrant system that has dominated talk in the men’s selection process, Nebraska’s success against quality opponents is probably what pushed the Huskers well off the bubble.
If applying the quadrant system, Nebraska collected seven quadrant one victories, Williams said, out of 13 opportunities. A victory over Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, she said, was “icing on the cake.”
Arizona State, meanwhile, was 4-10 in quadrant one games, and a combined 17-2 in quadrants 2-3-4. The Sun Devils, led in scoring by Nebraska native Kianna Ibis, are making their fifth consecutive NCAA appearance.
An All-Pac-12 forward, Ibis, a graduate of Omaha Benson, is averaging 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. Also, former Nebraska star Lindsey Moore, a former WNBA player, is a graduate assistant at Arizona State.
Nebraska hasn’t played since March 3, and the extra time off has allowed injured players, like Taylor Kissinger, time to heal. While she’s not 100 percent, Kissinger had “her best practice in weeks” on Sunday, Williams said, and is inching closer to full health.
Not playing until Saturday is a good thing for the Huskers, Williams said.
“They do a really good job of buying into our game plan and really paying attention to details on scouting reports,” she said. “We always feel like when we have ample time to prepare for opponents, that puts our team in a better position.”
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