Huskers among nation's hottest teams
Nebraska and UConn are only two undefeated D-I teams left
LINCOLN, Neb. -- If you're looking for overnight success stories, look elsewhere. Get rich quick? Forget it. Coming from out of nowhere? Nope, not here.
Nebraska is one of two undefeated teams left in Division I women's basketball -- the other one is located somewhere in the Northeast -- and the story here is basically good old-fashioned perseverance. Might sound dull, but right now it doesn't feel that way.
Especially not on Saturday, when the Huskers beat Kansas State 71-56 in front of the largest crowd (13,303) ever to attend a women's hoops game at the Devaney Center.
"That was awesome," said senior Kelsey Griffin. "The feeling out there was amazing."
Nebraska, ranked No. 6 and fairly certain to climb in the next poll, is now 17-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big 12 -- and all of this is unchartered waters of success for the program. Nebraska's inflatable mascot, Lil' Red, even looked more "inflated" than usual, what with all the fans present and a league-leading team.
His head, though, is the only big one you'll find associated with the Huskers. Coach Connie Yori has spent eight dogged seasons building the program, so she knows how to keep her nose to the grindstone.
"Everybody wants a quick fix, that's the nature of our society," Yori said. "They want immediate results. But in athletics, you've got to give people time to get it done.
"We really don't look at [our record]. But it's a great credit to our players for the offseason work that they did."
Her six-player senior class -- which includes fifth-year forward Griffin, an All-America candidate -- is not going to get giddy about any of this, either.
Are they happy? Well, of course. But they don't talk about rankings or their perfect record. They certainly don't talk about the other undefeated team, No. 1 UConn, which everyone acknowledges has separated itself almost Secretariat-like in front of the rest of the nation.
The Huskers talk about what's right in front of them next, which in this case is a trip on Wednesday to Lubbock -- where Nebraska is 0-7 -- to face Texas Tech. And if Nebraska needed any more eyes-straight-ahead focus (which it doesn't), a couple of other Big 12 results Saturday could provide that.
Missouri, which came in winless in league play, upset No. 12 Baylor 70-62 in Columbia, Mo. Meanwhile, No. 21 Iowa State's 73-71 win at No. 23 Texas isn't an upset, as per ranking, but it was just the second victory for the Cyclones in Austin, Texas. The previous one occurred a decade ago.
"Anytime you win a game in this league, you feel great because it's so darn hard," Yori said. "I know there's a lot of people who thought, 'We'll just walk in here and get this win.' We knew that wasn't the case and that we would have to bear down."
Even though K-State has just eight players -- five of them freshmen or sophomores -- the Wildcats were not pushovers. Nebraska didn't expect them to be, despite the fact that coming in, the matchup looked pretty lopsided on paper. But the Huskers were aware that K-State already had beaten Kansas, which was picked to finish second in the league, and Missouri, which -- as mentioned -- just beat preseason league favorite Baylor.
Plus, frankly, who's going to be more grounded than the basketball players at Nebraska? Look, it's hard not to be humble if you're a Huskers hoopster.
This is, of course, a state where college football is the focus of almost everyone's entire life. But many sports are successful here: volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, track and field and absolutely do not forget bowling, either.
Of the women's sports, volleyball is queen bee, with three NCAA titles and adoring fans who regularly pack the 4,000-seat Nebraska Coliseum.
But Nebraska often has been lukewarm in basketball, both men's and women's. Neither program has won a Big 12 regular-season or tournament title.
Their Big Eight history isn't much better. The Huskers men won their lone Big Eight tournament championship in 1994. Nebraska's women won only one regular-season Big Eight title, in 1988, and have made a league tournament final just once in either the Big 12 or Big Eight. That was in 1993, when the Huskers lost to Kansas.
Nebraska was led that season by senior Karen Jennings, who is the school's all-time scoring leader (2,405 points) and its only Wade Trophy winner and Kodak All-American. State Farm now sponsors the All-American team, and Griffin could become the second Husker to gain that honor.
Griffin also could help Nebraska do things it has never done. Such as win the Big 12 regular-season title, make the Big 12 tournament final, win that championship (no North squad has done that since Iowa State in 2001), and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 (Nebraska's best showing in eight NCAA appearances is the second round).
Of course, that's all putting the cart well before the horse. But if you're a Nebraska fan, how can you not peek ahead just a little bit and dream about what this bunch might accomplish?
Speaking of horses some might say they would be the easiest form of transportation for getting anywhere close to the Devaney Center when so many people converge here. In the midst of the former state fairgrounds, Devaney is surrounded by bottleneck-creating obstacles: overpasses, drainage ditches, buildings, houses and fences. It's too cold up here for an alligator-filled moat, or they might have that, too.
Built in 1976, Devaney isn't going to win any arena beauty contests. However, it's what's inside that counts. And Saturday, that was a whole lot of red-clad fans -- just a couple hundred short of a complete sellout -- and a so-far unflappable team led by those six seniors.
Griffin had 22 points and 12 rebounds. Fellow seniors Vonnie Turner (20) and Cory Montgomery (15) also scored in double figures. A freshman, Lindsey Moore, was tops in assists with nine.
As a point guard, Moore has benefited from having so much experience around her. When Yori put together this year's senior class -- it didn't include Griffin, who had to redshirt last season with an ankle injury -- she thought it might be the most important group she would have at Nebraska.
Yori had spent 10 seasons coaching at her alma mater, Creighton, and really wasn't eager to leave there. But in 2002 she couldn't pass up the Nebraska opening -- although she probably wished she would have at times during her 8-20 first season here.
Yori, who was a six-on-six basketball and softball star in her home state of Iowa, is scrappy, fiery and intense -- qualities the Huskers needed when she came to Lincoln. Since that tough initial season, Nebraska has made the postseason every year -- with two of those being NCAA tournament appearances.
The program went through some very damaging February skids a few seasons when it looked to be entering that month with a great chance to make the NCAA field. Yori had to examine how she could help the Huskers avoid those.
In 2007, when the Huskers got back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years, they let a first-round game with Temple get away from them. But then in 2008, they played well before losing to Maryland on the Terps' home court in the second round.
Last season, they were supposed to build on that, but Griffin suffered a severe ankle injury in August and wasn't able to return. The Huskers went 15-16 but still made the WNIT, led by Montgomery and Turner. And it has worked out for the best: Griffin looks healthier than ever and everyone around her is better, too.
"The team has been awesome; they've made my job super-easy," said the excessively modest (even for a Husker) Griffin. "I have to credit them. It's not just me. I don't have to do it all."
It has taken awhile for the program to get to this place, where women's basketball fans nationwide might be looking at Nebraska as a fresh-faced alternative to the all-too-familiar UConn juggernaut storyline.
Nobody's disputing who's concreted and bolted in at No. 1: that's the Huskies. But who's got a lot of people here in the Heartland smiling and talking hoops -- maybe even before (egad!) dissecting football recruiting?
That's the Huskers.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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