COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It was 2005, and the Nebraska women's basketball team had just thumped Texas A&M on the Aggies' home floor.
A&M coach Gary Blair boarded NU's team bus — a faux pas for just about any opposing coach except a raconteur like Blair — and paid his respects. Then he told the Huskers to buy their point guard, Jina Johansen, a cheeseburger — with everything on it — for the 11 assists she dished out.
So these days, Nebraska coach Connie Yori deadpanned, players reward senior point guard Lindsey Moore with a hamburger after wins.
“Every once in awhile,” Yori said, “we even give her cheese on it.”
Smiles. Jokes. A geyser of compliments as two teams strolled down the Big 12's memory lane. Blair called Yori one of college basketball's “best-kept secrets.” Yori called Blair “a character” and “great for our game.” It was almost hard to tell 24-8 NU and 25-9 A&M were squaring off Monday at 8:40 p.m. in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Aggie forward Kristi Bellock offered a reminder.
“If I was Nebraska, I wouldn't want to play us,” she said.
NU sophomore Emily Cady later responded: “Ooh, wow. It gives us more fire to play. Look at it that way.”
“It's good for them to be confident,” Nebraska forward Hailie Sample said. “But we're also confident. And we're not going to say anything like that.”
The sixth-seeded Huskers wouldn't have much room. Reed Arena isn't their home floor. They're 0-4 in true NCAA tournament road games. They're not on a team with three high-school All-Americans on the roster. They didn't win their conference tournament like the Aggies did.
No. 3 seed A&M has the size, depth and athleticism that Penn State and Purdue used to beat Nebraska four times in the regular season.
“Nobody expects us to win,” Yori said. Except President Obama, who picked NU to beat A&M and advance to the Elite Eight. That prompted Blair to call the Aggies the “Rodney Dangerfield” of women's college basketball, especially compared with an old Big 12 rival up the road, Baylor.
“It's only been two years ago since we won the national championship,” Blair said.
A minute later, he said that Nebraska's experience at point guard, offensive efficiency and multiple scoring weapons foretell a close game in front of a crowd that could push 10,000.
“Neither team has the capability of blowing each other out,” Blair said. “It's not gonna happen. They're too well-coached. They're too disciplined.”
Both are feeling good about their recent play. After losing four of five entering the SEC tournament, A&M went out and won it, beating three NCAA tournament teams in the process — No. 4 seed South Carolina, No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 2 seed Kentucky. Nebraska won 12 of its last 14.
And both have junior all-conference forwards who provide matchup problems for the opponent. NU has Jordan Hooper, whose quiet night against Chattanooga in the first round exploded into 21 points and 11 rebounds in the final 10 minutes, when she hit four 3-pointers.
“You have to make sure if Hooper hits one 3, she doesn't hit that second 3,” Blair said.
A&M's star is Kelsey Bone, a South Carolina transfer who has blossomed into a star averaging 16.7 points and 9.4 rebounds. Though a post player, she helps direct the Aggies' defense and routinely draws double teams on offense.
Though NU's faced some strong post players in the Big Ten this season, none was its team's top scoring option. Because A&M takes fewer than 10 3-pointers a game, its offense often operates inside the arc and near the paint, where Bone anchors herself against defenders.
“She gets big down on the block, and she does whatever she wants down there,” Hooper said. “She creates a lot of havoc. We are going to have to play quick, get around her and hopefully deter the ball from going in.”
Should the Huskers achieve that, they still have to punch holes in an A&M defense that gave up just 60 points to three explosive offenses in the SEC tournament. NU will look to Moore and Hooper for that. Bone said the Aggies will try to pressure Moore so she can't operate a two-woman game with Hooper.
Yes, a tall order, Yori agreed. NU is the underdog. The pressure's on A&M's side. But so is the home crowd.
“That's an advantage to them from that standpoint,” Yori said. “But we've got some kids who don't want their season to end, either. You'll see our team be competitive tomorrow.”
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