LINCOLN — However bumpy the road started for the Nebraska women's basketball team this year, the Huskers arrived at a program-defining destination by the end of it.
Second place in the Big Ten. Sweet 16 berth. A reaffirmation that coach Connie Yori can adapt her formula to the roster, and that she takes momentum with her into the gilded days ahead at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
It may seem odd to call one of the best seasons in school history a “bridge year” — especially with senior point guard Lindsey Moore leading the team — but that's what it was. A big part of Moore's considerable legacy is that she helped build a bridge for NU from one college basketball borough to the next.
Multiple Elite Eights — perhaps even the Final Four — await in the next decade if Yori recruits it right.
She's too self-deprecating to guarantee those kinds of achievements. But as the Huskers entered this NCAA tournament, there was more optimism than uncertainty. And when Nebraska struggled in the first round against Chattanooga, Yori challenged her Huskers — and star Jordan Hooper — to respond. They did.
Two nights later, they put on a clinic of execution and hustle against Texas A&M. Yori outcoached friend Gary Blair, and Blair knew it.
Last Sunday against Duke, NU had an 18-11 lead and the Blue Devils on the ropes. The Huskers' defensive plan was excellent. If they had been able to throw it in the water that surrounds the Norfolk-Virginia Beach metro area, they would have been playing Tuesday night against Notre Dame.
“We can hang with the best teams,” Hooper said after the game. Well, Duke anyway. And all of the other Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
The top seeds are a different story. For Nebraska to consistently reach that plateau, or be within shouting distance of it, Yori needs to land the recruit who she says is hardest to find: the dominant post player.
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And not just an old-school, back-to-the-basket style of post, either.
Remember, Iowa's Morgan Johnson — who averaged 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in her Hawkeye career — grew up an NU fan. The Huskers didn't recruit her much. (Johnson and Iowa also went 0-6 against Nebraska.) Yori wants the post who can run the floor, score off the drive and hit jumpers. An elite athlete. That's what Notre Dame has, Connecticut has, Stanford has.
At Nebraska, Yori has had one such post player: Kelsey Griffin, full of pluck, guile and smarts. Like Moore, Griffin built a bridge of her own, since her post-playing predecessors and peers — Chelsea Aubry, Danielle Page, Jelena Spiric and Cory Montgomery — were more complementary pieces than the kind who could attract double teams. I'd wager current Husker Emily Cady's better at this stage of her career than any of those four were.
Since Griffin's departure, one NU post after another has been injured and/or average, forcing Cady and Hooper — small forwards who can shoot, drive and pass off the dribble — to put their smaller frames in the paint and battle. And they do, admirably. Hooper will be a better pro because she expanded her game and learned how to scrap.
But imagine how much more dangerous the Huskers can be with Hooper and Cady on the floor while a true post anchors the middle. Alas, they'll be gone by the time do-it-all Lincoln Southeast-Fremont star Jessica Shepard enrolls in 2015. And should Shelby-Rising City standout Chatrice White commit to Nebraska — no certain thing — she won't arrive until 2014.
So the pressure transfers to 6-foot-5 recruit Allie Havers. It's not a pressure she'll necessarily feel. She'll bear it anyway.
Out of Mattawan, Mich. — 90 minutes from Ann Arbor — Havers initially committed to Michigan, got lost in the shuffle of a coaching change and switched to the Huskers last summer after a visit. NU got the athlete it wanted, an all-stater in three sports (basketball, volleyball and softball) who averaged 19.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks despite having her tonsils removed midseason.
Because she played three sports and didn't play the field in recruiting, Havers won't appear on many prospects lists. Hooper and Griffin didn't, either.
Havers won't be the widest post, either. But if she arrives healthy and stays that way, Hooper can spend at least some of her senior year on the perimeter while point guard Rachel Theriot — who takes over for Moore after playing beside for a season — can run a less-congested offense.
Nebraska's staff is high on Theriot.
Yori stuck with the freshman through early-season hesitance and mistakes. Theriot rewarded her coach by becoming a steady player in Big Ten play and a better-than-expected shooter. Theriot is likely headed for offseason foot surgery, but she'll have time to recover. Though Moore isn't easy to replace, Theriot's game won't be a steep drop-off.
Can Yori get back to her high-pressure defense next year? You know junior-to-be guards Brandi Jeffery and Tear'a Laudermill are up for it. But they'll need help from Theriot, sophomore-to-be Sadie Murren and two recruits: Hannah Tvrdy (who follows Cady from Seward) and Esther Ramacieri (from Quebec).
In the minutes after the loss to Duke, Yori said she's still looking at adding one more recruit for 2013. If not, the Huskers can take the scholarship into next year, when the staff can pitch one of the best practice facilities in the nation and a new arena.
And if the NCAA approves NU's bid to host the first and second rounds of the 2014 NCAA tournament, prospective recruits will see a fast-tempo, shooting-friendly offense playing in front of a packed palace, because Husker fans, imprinted at an early age, love winners.
Nebraska's women are fixing to do more of that — on a bigger scale — in years to come.
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