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By Randy York
Connie Yori started the 2011-12 basketball season a very sick woman, battling a staph infection and blood clots after routine knee surgery, and Nebraska’s head women’s basketball coach ended the season a very proud woman following Sunday night’s 57-49 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas in Little Rock, Ark. While Yori got stronger every day transitioning from a crutch and a scooter to finish the season on her own two feet, the youngest team in the Big Ten Conference fell from a tough physical toll of its own.
The Huskers did everything possible to win the Big Ten Postseason Tournament in their inaugural season, but after losing a two-overtime heart-breaker to Purdue in the championship game, they left Indianapolis resembling a M.A.S.H. unit trying to prepare themselves for the next challenge. Unfortunately, things got worse physically in the 14 days between playing four consecutive Big Ten Tournament games in four days and the first-round NCAA Tournament game.
Did anyone study the pictures or watch the video highlights when NCAA pairings were announced a week ago tonight on national television? The announcement showed the enthusiasm and resiliency of Nebraska’s young team with six freshmen among its top 10 players. All were wearing ear-to-ear grins as they leaped out of their seats. Sitting next to them, Yori stayed put, managing a stoic, almost stunned look. She knew that two starters – freshman Hailie Sample and sophomore Jordan Hooper – would be wearing orthopedic boots to support and protect stress reactions instead of practicing the entire week leading up to Sunday’s NCAA match-up with Kansas.
The boots were made for walking, but they enabled no running, not even a quick sprint down the floor of NU’s new practice facility at the Hendricks Training Complex. Watching film is an important part of game preparation, but when that’s all you do for an entire week, something goes haywire, and in Nebraska’s case, it was rhythm. There was no beat, no timing … just an irregular pulse.
Live by the Three, Die by the Three
“We just didn’t have a lot of rhythm offensively,” Yori told reporters in the post-game press conference. “Mostly, it’s not ironic, but, it’s not surprising that we’ve lived by the three and died by the three all year long, and we got 1‐for‐19 from the three‐point line. We had some really, really good looks, and we just couldn’t find the basket. That’s part of the game … You’re trying to do the best you can, but, rhythm‐wise, you’re going to lose something.”
No. 11 seed KU upsetting No. 6 seed Nebraska requires reflection and perspective. The Huskers lost the game, but they did not lose the season. When a reporter asked Yori what she likes about her team next year, Nebraska’s 2009-10 National Coach of the Year wisely bridged to what this year’s team accomplished. “Well, I’ll tell you what I like about our team this year,” she said. “I don’t think anybody would’ve thought we’d win 24 games. We had a great season. You hate to see it end like this. You hate to see us not play at the top level we’re capable of playing. But that’s part of the game.”
Especially for a team with freshmen logging 50 percent of its overall playing time. Those watching on ESPN2 saw another interesting graphic on the telecast – one showing freshmen accounting for 27.7 percent of Nebraska’s overall team scoring this season, the best such production among all women’s teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, formerly men’s head coach at Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico, used that graphic to talk about youth and the strong base the Huskers have built for the future.
Incredibly Proud of Accomplishments
“Everyone just worked so hard and put their all in it,” Yori said. “I’m just so incredibly proud of everyone on our team and just really proud to be a part of the Nebraska Women’s basketball team. I know that they’re going to do great things next year and the years after.”
This season’s 24 wins represent the second most in school history, superseded only by Yori’s 2009-10 team that won 32 games. An All-Big Ten player and the league’s most dominant double-double force despite being just a sophomore, Hooper obviously was not herself after being unable to practice. She never found her rhythm, but never lost her hustle. Sample only played 13 minutes Sunday night. Senior Kaitlyn Burke led the No. 17 Huskers in scoring with 14. Freshman Emily Cady scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Both Burke and Cady, incidentally, are expecting to undergo post-season orthopedic surgery.
None of this information is intended as an excuse for Nebraska’s difficult finish. To be successful, most basketball teams overcome setbacks. Yori has never made excuses, and it was encouraging to hear her describe how an over-achieving team put itself a full year ahead of anyone’s greatest expectations. Yori’s young team did not produce a championship, but it certainly delivered hope for a future one. And knowing Yori, and the people she’s brought in to share her vision, the quest for that 2012-13 championship most likely begins Monday.
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