By Jeff Griesch
Nebraska Women's Basketball Media Relations Director
Well over an hour after the Nebraska women's basketball team completed its Big 12 regular-season championship celebration on the court at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday, the entire Husker team was still signing autographs outside the basketball office.
At 10:20 p.m., a Nebraska staff member made his way down the line of hundreds of patient Husker fans and let them know the autographs would be ending in 10 minutes. The Big Red fans were obviously upset, but not unruly, and most continued to stand in the four-to-five person-wide line that stretched the length of the lower North concourse at the Devaney Center.
When Nebraska's players heard that the announcement had been made, they continued to sign. Then as the 10:30 p.m. time limit arrived they all made the decision to stay and sign autographs until all of the Husker faithful went away with a special souvenir.
It was a typical decision by a special group of student-athletes at the University of Nebraska. Moments earlier, just after NU's on-court celebration, National Player-of-the-Year candidate Kelsey Griffin provided all the insight needed to understand their decision.
"We love our fans, and we don't want to disappoint them," Griffin said. "I remember what it was like to watch players when I was kid and it meant so much for me for one of them to say 'hey' or give me a high-five. I know what it means to those little kids because it meant that much so me."
Senior teammate Yvonne Turner was sitting next to Griffin, emphatically nodding her head. A Nebraska native, Turner was a WBCA High School All-American at Bellevue East before coming to Lincoln to play for the Big Red. Four years after cutting the nets down with her high school teammates following the 2006 Class A state title game at the Devaney Center, Turner joined Griffin in cutting the nets down to celebrate the Huskers' first-ever Big 12 title following Saturday's win over Missouri.
"Our fans have been awesome this year, and it has been so great to see everyone at the games," Turner said. "It just makes us that much more excited to play, and we are playing for all of them and the whole state. It has been great to put Nebraska basketball on the map and we hope we can keep it going as long as we can this year."
The decision by the Huskers to continue to sign autographs did not surprise Coach Connie Yori. Although she was hoping to get her players home so they could rest as they prepare to finish off the regular season with a Senior Night game against Kansas on Wednesday, before a road trip to Kansas State on Saturday, she supported their decision. In fact, she came out of her office and sat down with the players to sign autographs for the fans who had been waiting for nearly two hours to say congratulations personally to the Huskers.
"This is a special group. They play for each other and they understand each other so well," Yori said. "They have great chemistry because they not only show great effort, but they also have great mental toughness, character and most importantly, they love and respect one another. Those are the foundation of our core principles as a team, and each one of our seniors are shining examples of those values."
The group has already led the Huskers to the best season in school history and the school's first-ever Big 12 women's basketball title, while rolling to a 27-0 record and a 14-0 Big 12 mark. The have put Nebraska women's basketball on the national map by leading the Huskers to a No. 3 national ranking and what will be their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the past four years.
Griffin, a leading contender for All-America and Big 12 Player-of-the-Year honors, is the headliner of the class. During her four years, she has become the face of Nebraska women's basketball. This season, she has produced 17 double-doubles to push her career total to 37. She ranks second in the Big 12 in scoring and leads the league in rebounding.
In Nebraska's Big 12 title-clinching win over Missouri, Griffin erupted for 30 points and 13 rebounds. In Saturday's win over Missouri, she managed 19 points and career highs of 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and a school-record 17 made free throws. She has produced 30 or more points three times this season and is averaging 19.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. She is approaching 1,900 points and 950 career rebounds, and she also leads the Huskers in steals and charges drawn this season, while ranking second on the team in blocked shots.
Her numbers go on and on, but they don't even come close to describing her impact on Nebraska's program on or off the court. Last season without Griffin, the Huskers battled their way to a sixth straight postseason tournament berth, finishing with a 15-16 overall record and a 6-10 Big 12 mark. In addition to being plus-12 in the win column this season, the Huskers with Griffin are 16 points per game better offensively and five points per game better on the defensive end.
But that still falls short of explaining the influence of the 6-2 forward from Eagle River, Alaska.
"Kelsey is the best player that I have ever coached, but above everything else, Kelsey is a great person," Yori said. "She has great parents who raised her the right way. She is tough-minded and is always working to improve. She works so hard to make herself better that it rubs off on everyone else around her. Not only that, but she is an excellent student and a leader in the community."
Griffin's all-around game on and off the court earned her spot as a 2010 Lowe's Senior CLASS Award finalist. Through the first four weeks of fan voting on the award, Griffin is winning in a landslide. She has received nearly as many votes as the other nine finalists combined. (Vote for Kelsey at www.seniorclassaward.com or text W6 to 74567).
Griffin will also earn her third first-team academic All-Big 12 award this season, carrying a 3.5 GPA as a biological sciences major. as will Kuhlmann, who carries better than a 3.8 GPA as a psychology and Spanish major, and has already been accepted to law school. Montgomery will also be a three-time academic All-Big 12 honoreee. She and Neals both earned their bachelor's degrees in business administration and management, respectively in just 3 1/2 years. They received their diplomas at the Devaney Center on Dec. 19 - the day before Nebraska knocked off No. 5 LSU. Bober, also a management major, will join Turner, a child, youth and family studies major, Griffin and Kuhlmann in receiving their degrees in May. They will continue Nebraska's 100 percent Graduation Success Rate in women's basketball.
Griffin is the lone fifth-year senior in Nebraska's group of six seniors, and she feels a special bond with other five that has made them seem more like sisters than teammates.
"I believe that things happen for a reason, and I guess this is the reason I had to sit and watch last year while my teammates had to fight so hard through a challenging season," Griffin said. "I just feel so honored and privileged to call these girls my teammates. They have worked so hard and they deserve the success they've had this season. I'm just glad I could help them get there. We've still got a lot of season left, and we hope to make the most of it."
Joining Griffin in the realm of all-time great Nebraska players will be fellow forward Cory Montgomery. The 6-2 senior from Cannon Falls, Minn., earned honorable-mention All-Big 12 accolades a year ago by averaging 15.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. NU's primary option with Griffin out of the lineup last season, Montgomery helped shoot the Huskers into the postseason with a career-high 30-point effort in the 2009 Big 12 regular-season finale at Oklahoma State.
Montgomery is approaching 1,300 points and 600 rebounds and will join Griffin as one of only eight Huskers in history to achieve those combined standards. Montgomery is also nearing Nebraska's top 10 in career three-pointers made. Her ability to score on the block, hit the mid-range jumpshot and knock down threes helps create space for Griffin, who is often double- or triple-teamed.
For some players, going from the primary scoring option one season to the secondary option the next, might create some friction. Not with this group of special seniors.
"It's great to play with Kelsey," Montgomery said after the Huskers' Big 12 title-clinching victory at Oklahoma. "I love being on the floor with her. We've played with each other for a while now, so we know what each other likes to do. It makes it a lot easier to play. The team that we have right now, we get along so well, we love each other so much, and it makes it that much more fun to go on the court every night and practice and play. That's the thing, is that we're winning these games together. That's what makes it more fun."
Turner, has joined Griffin and Montgomery in Nebraska's 1,000-point club this season. The 5-8 guard from Omaha also ranks second in school history in three-pointers made and is eighth in career steals. The two-time Big 12 All-Defensive Team selection also needs just five more assists to become the sixth player in school history with 1,000 points, 200 assists and 200 career steals. She would join Anna DeForge, Amy Stephens, Nicole Kubik, Meggan Yedsena and Brooke Schwartz on that list, placing her among the best guards in school history.
"This has been such a great season, but we still have some games left, and we want to stretch them out as long as we can," Turner said. "We love playing and practicing together, so we don't want it to end. We want to have great practices, so we can play great in games, so we can keep playing as many games as possible."
While Griffin, Montgomery and Turner have been multi-year starters in the Husker lineup, Kuhlmann and Neals have been two of the most reliable reserves in school history. Kuhlmann, a 5-8 guard from Charter Oak, Iowa, will play in her 115th career game on Wednesday against Kansas. She has scored nearly 300 career points, grabbed more than 160 rebounds and dished out more than 100 assists.
Kuhlmann has been an unselfish player, and has filled any role asked of her during her four-year career. Last season, with Griffin and Bober out for the season with injuries, Kuhlmann played power forward at times. This season, after the best offseason of her career, Kuhlmann has played the "hound" or defensive point guard at times in Nebraska's press.
Neals, a 5-6 guard from Chandler, Ariz., will be making her 116th career appearance against the Jayhawks. She has scored more than 300 points and is also nearing 100 rebounds, while dishing out more than 130 career assists. A reliable three-point shooter, and an outstanding ball-handler and decision-maker, Neals has also developed into a tenacious on-the-ball defender at Nebraska.
"Every coach in America would like to have players on their team like Kala and 'Tiny'," Yori said. "They are so unselfish and do so much for our team. They know their roles and they excel in them. They give us everything they have every day, and they are as much responsible for our success as any starter on our team."
Bober has had her career cut short by knee injuries the past two seasons. Although she has been on the sideline this year, her impact on Nebraska's team is undeniable.
Every Husker wears a "#42" on their shoes to take Bober onto the court with them. During Nebraska's Big 12 championship celebration on Saturday, it was the 6-4 senior center who was pushed to the center of the photo to hold the trophy with her senior teammates for photographers.
"Nikki has had it tough with her knee injuries. She didn't deserve them, and we want her to know that we play for her," Turner said. "It reminds us that our time on the court is limited, so we need to make the most of it every day, because you don't know what tomorrow holds."
While the Huskers take Bober onto the court with them, she supports them every day in practice, and is arguably the most vocal Big Red fan in the Devaney Center on game day, while leading the Husker bench.
"You cannot underestimate how much Nikki Bober means to this basketball team," Yori said. "She gets us going every day in practice. She is always on the sideline clapping it up and cheering on our players to keep them going during a hard practice. She is so supportive of them. She loves Nebraska basketball, even though she hasn't been able to play it that much the past two years. In a lot of ways, she is the heart and soul of our team. She is a smalltown Nebraska kid who has helped build this program into something special in her four years here."
Nebraska's 2009-10 senior class will leave a legacy like no other to this point in school history. The sisterhood that they have helped create has carried over to the juniors, sophomores and freshmen behind them. The seniors have led by example, and the younger players will hope to follow the example and continue the tradition in the coming seasons.
"I have been harder on this team than any other team I have ever coached, but it's OK because they can handle it," Yori said. "We have shown incredible toughness, incredible focus and desire. It has been an honor and a privilege to coach them."