LINCOLN — Rachel Theriot sits just outside the interview room of Pinnacle Bank Arena. Her hands fiddle with a red foam stick that Nebraska women’s basketball fans wave during games. Her team has just lost badly to Purdue, in part because Theriot didn’t play, because the shooting pain below her left ankle was too severe.
“Running’s fine,” Theriot said. “Walking’s fine. Going in different directions? No.”
Hours earlier, the senior leaned against a railing in the arena during warm-ups, distraught over not being able to play while coach Connie Yori patted her gently on the back. With a three-game homestand, NU had to win all three games to firm up its NCAA tournament résumé. Without Theriot, the Huskers are 0-2 in that homestand and rudderless on offense.
So a lengthy interview occurs at a low moment for one of the best passers in Husker history, and at perhaps an odd time for Theriot to reminisce about her four-year career. Theriot, who sees on a basketball court so well that her coach thinks she’s two or three steps ahead of the action, can’t easily see, on this padded chair in an empty hallway, just how good her career has been.
The painful present, in these quiet minutes, blots out the past.
“I haven’t had the greatest four years basketball-wise,” Theriot said, meaning it.
This from a four-year starter. A Big Ten tournament MVP. A two-time All-Big Ten player. An honorable mention All-American in 2014. A player with a career nearly every Husker would love to have.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You know how you can be — and what you’re capable of — and sometimes an injury like this, you have restrictions. You’re limited. It’s hard to get past that point where, you know you can’t do things you used to do. It’s one of the hardest things. The simple stuff — going up and shooting — doesn’t feel like it used to. Or stopping and going. It may seem little, but it’s a big deal.”
Because of the pain — which Theriot said stems from the bones in her feet being “structured differently” — she hasn’t practiced in more than a month, a situation that Yori calls awkward. If Theriot weren’t a senior, and weren’t so smart, she probably wouldn’t have played at all.
And, for the last two games, she hasn’t. Theriot shut it down last Sunday. The coaches shut it down on Wednesday in a loss to Indiana.
Now, Theriot has one last home game. Sunday. Senior day. Northwestern. She wants to play. Her foot has to let her. Will it?
“We’ll see,” Yori said, adding that NU’s trainer has to sign off on Theriot playing. “It’d be a shame if Rachel couldn’t play.”
As good as Theriot has been over her career — she’s easily passed the 1,000-point career mark, she’ll finish third in career assists, and she has a school-record 12 games with double-digit assists — these lingering injuries have even vexed Yori to some small degree. Theriot has been healthy for only one season — her sophomore campaign, when she averaged 14.1 points and 7.1 assists and won that tournament MVP award.
The 6-footer from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, was slowed for most of her freshman season. She tore up the ankle halfway through her junior year. And she’s been off her game this season, especially since Big Ten play started.
“You just always wonder what she could have done if she wasn’t injured throughout her career,” Yori said. “Where would she fit into some of the best players in the history of our program? Unfortunately, she got bit by the injury bug and was never fully able to shake that.”
Theriot’s senior campaign, Yori said, “hasn’t been what any of us wanted,” Theriot included.
“Shots in the past where you’d say, ‘That’s pretty much money,’ those shots weren’t going in at the same rate this year,” Yori said. “She couldn’t go game speed in practice situations. She could do some light shooting, but not game speed — as you’d like it to be.”
Last season, NU still made the NCAA tournament after Theriot got hurt because of four seasoned seniors. This year, Theriot became the most experienced player on the roster, and, implicitly, she was called on to be a leader of many sophomores and freshmen.
But rehab from the ankle injury kept Theriot on the sideline for a summer trip to Australia. She went on the trip but she didn’t play. And Theriot, a true introvert, doesn’t see herself as a vocal leader. She’s plenty insightful — in a one-on-one setting. In larger groups, she relies on her craft, her skills, her knowledge of the game. Not her voice.
So trying to lead several freshmen, she said, was “very tough.”
“It’s a lot of pressure, when you’re holding everything together,” she said. The role felt unnatural to her.
“But, at that point, what do you do? You try to aim to please,” she continued. “I do a lot of my work on the court. I’m not going to come at someone, yell in their face and say, ‘Hey, you do this and that.’ I’m more of a teaching person, more than I will demand it or yell at you.”
As Yori puts it, her senior guard is “not afraid of her own shadow anymore, but she might be afraid of other people’s shadows.”
“She’s still pretty quiet and reserved,” the coach said. “She isn’t a rah-rah leader. But she’s someone who, early on, could not step in front of a group and speak without feeling very anxious about it, and now she’s capable of doing that and willing to do that.”
Foot injuries haven’t limited Theriot’s mind for the game one bit. She has every pass in her arsenal. Her best might be a deft drop-off when a post darts for the basket after a pick. It’s not fancy, but what makes it special is where Theriot leaves the ball — right where freshman center Jessica Shepard can catch and shoot in one motion.
Shepard is a lock for Big Ten freshman of the year. She might be the top freshman in college basketball. But in the first game Theriot missed, Shepard had two points.
Theriot’s basketball IQ “is off the charts,” Yori said. “She sees three steps ahead of the play, and most players are lucky if they can see one step ahead of the play. And some players play from behind. Rachel always sees what’s in front of her.”
Said Theriot: “I get more joy out of getting my teammates involved and seeing them succeed — especially now that I’m injured and can’t do as much as I think I can. Sometimes it’s good to be selfish — and sometimes it’s good not to be.”
Which is why, when plugged again for a favorite memory, Theriot picks the 2014 Big Ten tournament. She had 18 assists in a quarterfinal game against Minnesota. The Huskers won the Big Ten tournament title, and, for three nights, Theriot was the best player in the league. Nebraska sent off senior Jordan Hooper as the hero that Theriot thought Hooper was. That Nebraska team was effortless on offense — it could score from anywhere — and Theriot set NU’s season record for assists with 234. She was unselfish in a way that allowed everybody to win big.
She’d like for her feet to let her play one last game at Pinnacle Bank Arena. And she’d like to play for years to come. Theriot wants to pursue pro basketball — stateside, overseas, wherever she can. She smiles at the thought of that.
“I don’t want to get a job yet,” she said. “C’mon now. Who wants that? Play the sport you love, right? It means that you’re really not even doing a job. You are, but it doesn’t seem like it.”
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