Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Friends, Family Help Simon Celebrate Senior Night

By Brian Rosenthal

Somebody might as well have given the keys to Pinnacle Bank Arena to Maddie Simon and told her to lock up the place when she was finished.

This is what happens when a local, homegrown Husker celebrates her final home basketball game. Senior Night turns into a big party, with so many friends and family able to attend, and especially when you’re the only senior being honored.

Such was the case Monday night. Long after the Nebraska women’s basketball team concluded its home season with a 74-58 loss to No. 12 Iowa, there was Simon, a graduate of Lincoln Pius X High School, hugging friends, taking group pictures, signing autographs. She knew most of them, and the few she didn’t, well, they certainly knew her.

That included Dale, a season ticket holder and hardcore Nebraska fan, who sat in the front row during the Senior Night celebration, holding a small pink sign, with words written in black marker, thanking Simon for the memories.

Simon tried to will Nebraska (13-15, 8-9 Big Ten Conference) to a major upset in her final home game. The Huskers led Iowa (22-6, 13-4) by four points after one quarter, and even after falling behind by nine at halftime, they had a big spurt coming out of the locker room in the third quarter.

When Simon scored a layup with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter, Nebraska had forged a 43-43 tie. But Iowa finished on a 31-15 run.

Simon played the final 5:15 of the game. Her final points came on a 3-pointer with 3:13 remaining. She finished with six points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.

Minutes after the game, Nebraska coach Amy Williams and her staff presented Simon a framed red No. 24 jersey in the Senior Night recognition. Leading up to that, Simon had a prepared statement for the fans on the overhead video screen.

Simon began by saying how she dreamed as a young girl about one day playing for Nebraska.

“After four incredible years, I’m so proud to say I made that dream a reality,” Simon said. “I will cherish this time for the rest of my life, and I feel so blessed to have been able to play for the Huskers.

“During my time at Nebraska, I grew up so much, not only as a player, but even more as a person. It hasn’t always been easy, but I wouldn’t change anything because I know that I’m stronger and better because of it.”

The video cut away for a brief highlight montage, with Nebraska radio play-by-play voice Matt Coatney describing some of Simon’s top plays. (After the ceremony, Simon would head to the broadcasters’ table and give Coatney, one of the program’s most passionate and ardent supporters, a big hug.)

On the big screen, Simon continued by thanking many people, beginning with the Nebraska fans.

“I cannot express how much your support and encouragement has meant to me over these past four years,” Simon said. “You have made PBA such a fun environment to play in, and I thank you all again for being some of the best fans in women’s college basketball.”

Simon next thanked her coaches. She played her final three seasons under Williams and her staff.

“The lessons I learned from you will help me grow into the person I want to be in my life beyond basketball,” Simon said. “You have taught me how to deal with adversity and how to deal with the ups and downs of life. Thank you for challenging me every day, and for being role models for me and my teammates.”

Simon then thanked her teammates, both past and current.

“Thank you for being some of my best friends, the funniest, craziest, smartest and most hard-working people that I know,” Simon said, noting she won’t soon forget the inside jokes in the huddles, the locker room celebrations and the road trips.

Last, and certainly not least, she thanked her family. Her parents, Doug and Nicole, her brothers, Bennet and Zach, and her grandparents were among her relatives in attendance. They all joined her at midcourt for the postgame celebration.

“It’s hard to put into words just how grateful I am for all of you,” she said. “Thank you for being my biggest fans and never missing a game.”

The latter is perhaps what impressed Williams the most about Simon’s parents. The third-year Nebraska coach took the public address microphone to address the fans to conclude the recognition.

“Your unwavering support and seeing your faces everywhere we go, it’s hard to put into words, from the first day of my press conference and seeing you guys there, and every place we’ve traveled to, you’re there,” Williams said to Simon's family. “Your support for Maddie, but also the rest of our program and our team, have been felt for the three years that we’ve been here.”

An emotional Williams then needed to pause for a few seconds before also thanking Simon directly for her contributions to the program, in every aspect imaginable.

“I want to thank you for being such an incredible inspiration and role model for my own two daughters, and for every other young lady Maddie has touched while she’s been in our program,” Williams said. “She’s represented herself with class. I just couldn’t think of a better role model for the young women in our community, and my own daughters.”

The 2015 Nebraska High School Player of the Year, Simon was a two-time first-team Super-State selection while leading Lincoln Pius X to the 2015 Class B state championship. She was the No. 149 player in the nation according to Blue Star and the No. 22 guard by ESPN in 2015.

As a junior, she helped the Huskers to the NCAA Tournament despite missing time with an ankle injury. In 28 games, with 27 starts at power forward, Simon was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten by averaging 10.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and two assists per game last season.

The only active senior on Nebraska’s roster, Simon entered Monday averaging seven points and 3.1 rebounds after a strong 15-point, five-rebound performance off the bench in a win at Northwestern.

Nebraska concludes the regular season at Penn State and is still jockeying for a higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

“It’s been a dream come true to play for Nebraska,” Simon said to conclude her video. “Thank you guys so much, and Go Big Red.”

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter@GBRosenthal.

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