LINCOLN — The player with the biggest smile and easiest laugh on the Nebraska women's basketball team — NU's fizzy can of Red Bull — couldn't always shift into a slower gear.
For two seasons, whenever the ball arrived in junior Tear'a Laudermill's hands, you were confident something notable was about to happen. Whether it'd help or hurt the Huskers was another question.
Until January of her junior year, that is. A Nebraska team in sore need of a final backcourt piece has found one. Laudermill is averaging 14.1 points per game in Big Ten play. In the last seven games, she's been even better: 17.6 points per game, 52.5 percent shooting from the floor and 53.7 percent from 3-point range. Now, as NU enjoys a five-game winning streak, “T” isn't just Laudermill's ubiquitous nickname among teammates, coaches and reporters. “T” is for “torrid.”
“She knows we're counting on her,” coach Connie Yori said. “She knows we need her. When she does not play well, she knows it hurts us. When she plays well, she knows how important that is to us. She's figuring that out.”
Said senior forward Jordan Hooper: “She's doing what she can — and not trying to do more, if that makes sense. She's playing within herself and not trying to do stuff that maybe she would have tried to do two months ago or last year.”
Hooper's statement sounds right to Laudermill, and frankly anyone else who's watched the Huskers since Laudermill's arrival. A top 100 recruit out of Riverside, Calif., Laudermill's speed and fearlessness have made her a key asset in NU's defense and a flashy playmaker. But she could also be a bottle rocket heading for a nearby tree, dribbling headlong into the paint, tossing up wayward layups. She could take a 3-pointer five seconds into the shot clock. And if Laudermill made a few mistakes in a row, Yori could employ a quick hook.
But Laudermill said she noticed in recent months Yori being more patient, offering more latitude.
“It started when I saw that I had a little more freedom in the stuff I was doing,” Laudermill said. “So I tested it out a little bit. My game started improving and the coaches started getting confident in me.”
Laudermill scored 13 points and had three steals in a Jan. 12 win over Illinois, but her hot streak didn't begin in earnest until a 77-75 loss to Purdue, when she scored 14 points, helping lead a late Husker comeback. In an otherwise miserable 63-59 loss at Northwestern, Laudermill was a bright spot with a career-high 18 points. Six days later, she scored another career high (26) when NU walloped Iowa. But her 21 points at Wisconsin may have been the high point; the Huskers needed every one of them in a 71-70 overtime win.
Throughout the stretch, Laudermill has become Nebraska's best 3-point shooter, and her efficiency has created more scoring chances for Hooper and junior post Emily Cady. Defenses that sag off Laudermill have paid dearly for it. And Laudermill has learned the first available shot is rarely the best one.
“(I was) overusing my speed or taking that shot we can get at any time,” Laudermill said. “I'm getting a little — a little bit — better at that, at not rushing down and having some out-of-control shot. The coaches tell me 'T, calm down.' Teammates tell me, 'T, calm down.' ”
But not too much, especially off the court, where Laudermill — the star in the Husker women's “Harlem Shake” video last year — is the cut-up on an otherwise mild-mannered team.
“I just love to make people laugh,” Laudermill said. “I just love to be myself, you know? It helps me with my game, bringing the energy. I'm an energetic person. Let's go! Let's get everybody happy!”