LINCOLN — As you read this, the Nebraska women’s basketball coaches will have already put hours of prep into their first-round NCAA tournament game against a team they’ve never seen. And they just might have put in that work with a bit of a chip on their shoulders.
Widely projected as a No. 4 or 5 seed for the tournament — even a No. 3 in ESPN’s bracket prediction — the Huskers instead got a No. 6 Monday and were shipped to a pod featuring one of the tougher environments in college basketball, old Big 12 foe Texas A&M.
And NU’s first-round opponent, 11th-seeded Chattanooga, has won 19 straight games. The Lady Mocs, who will play the Huskers (23-8) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in College Station, Texas, have a 29-3 record that includes an upset of Tennessee.
Though Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten — two games clear of Purdue and Michigan State, which both got higher seeds — it arguably got a tougher assignment than last year. Outside of the players, who celebrated Monday upon seeing their names during ESPN’s Selection Show, the mood at the Hendricks Training Complex was initially surprised, then subdued.
“We obviously got caught in a situation,” coach Connie Yori said. “It looks like they had to move us down for whatever reason. Probably a slot or two.”
Husker players didn’t seem to mind the seeding snub.
“I don’t want to be too high and have a huge target on our back, but I don’t want to be too low and not have a target at all,” junior All-Big Ten forward Jordan Hooper said. “I kind of like the middle of the pack. Honestly, I don’t (care). Whoever we play, we play. Wherever we go, we go.”
Said senior point guard Lindsey Moore: “I just want to get in, and I want to get playing.”
Moore said she had “no idea” what challenges Chattanooga — regular-season and tournament champions of the Southern Conference — could pose. She hasn’t seen film and doesn’t know their players. NU gets four days to prepare. Moore expects Nebraska will take every available minute to do so.
“You really have to lock in and you really have to know what you’re doing out there for their scout,” she said. “It’s exciting, but it’s also kind of weird.”
The Lady Mocs shoot a lot of 3-pointers — nearly 20 per game — force 18 turnovers a game and get good low-post production from 6-foot-3 center Ashlen Dewart, who averages 15.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Chattanooga also has a 4-0 record on neutral courts.
“We have a very tough first-round matchup based on what I see,” Yori said.
If Nebraska wins Saturday, it’d likely draw third-seeded Texas A&M on Monday. The Aggies won the SEC tournament two weeks ago, the national title in 2011 and were one of two teams to beat NU in 2010, when the Huskers won 32 games.
Since 2005, A&M has won five of seven against Nebraska. Only Moore, Hooper and senior forward Meghin Williams were on the 2011 team that lost in College Station to end the regular season. Yori said it’s good to go to a site where Nebraska has some familiarity.
Another advantage for the Huskers: They’re healthy. Unlike last year, when Hooper and forward Hailie Sample suffered stress reactions in their feet and wore walking boots until a day before a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas, NU should have its usual rotation at its usual strength.
“We are a little bit healthier now,” Yori said.
Nebraska is in the Norfolk, Va., region, where Notre Dame is the No. 1 seed and Duke is No. 2. No. 9 Iowa — which Nebraska beat three times — hosts No. 8 seed Miami (Fla.), which is 14 spots lower in the RPI than Chattanooga. Should the Hawkeyes win, they would likely host Notre Dame in the second round in Iowa City.
Along with the Irish, Baylor, Connecticut and Stanford received No. 1 seeds. The defending national champion Bears are considered a prohibitive favorite to repeat.
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