Yori takes Huskers from worst to first

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

NORMAN, Okla. -- This time seven years ago, Nebraska coach Connie Yori had to keep reassuring herself that she hadn't made a big mistake.

She had spent 10 seasons in Omaha, Neb., as head coach of her alma mater, Creighton, when the call came to try to come fix things down the road in Lincoln. Nebraska's program had slid off track.

After making the NCAA tournament in coach Paul Sanderford's first three seasons, the Huskers were 4-12 in the Big 12 in his last two. He left the program, and Yori cautiously accepted the challenge of preventing Nebraska women's basketball from fully slipping into irrelevance.

But how often -- in the midst of an 8-20 season when the Huskers went 1-15 in the Big 12 -- did Yori wonder why she'd left Creighton?

"Pretty much every day," she said of the 2002-03 season. "I cried a lot that first year. It was hard; it was really hard. Thank God I have a great husband, who is really supportive of me and what I do. He had to console me a lot. There were a lot of days that I said, 'What the heck am I doing here?'"

On Wednesday, though, the tears Yori shed as she hugged her husband, Kirk Helms, constituted the happiest kind of salt water. With an 80-64 victory over Oklahoma, the Huskers clinched the program's first Big 12 championship. For third-ranked Nebraska, 26-0 overall and 13-0 in Big 12, it was only the second league championship in women's basketball in school history.

The other came in a different league, the Big Eight, and a different era in the sport, in 1988. Most of today's Huskers were either infants then or not even born yet.

All this is to give sufficient historical gravity to the images of the Huskers celebrating at Lloyd Noble Center. It has been a long, long time coming. It happened with six seniors, one of whom -- fifth-year player Kelsey Griffin -- is a gem that Yori and her staff went all the way to Alaska to find.

Griffin led the way against the Sooners with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Forced to sit out last season with severe ankle woes, Griffin could not have guessed in August 2008 what a blessing that injury would be. It gave her the valuable chance to learn from the bench, plus it allowed her to finish her college career with a group of veterans that benefited from the hard-knock experience of playing without her.

"Kelsey Griffin is the ultimate X factor," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "She's playing with a sense of urgency that comes from her final collegiate [season] and a sense of passion that comes from having part of your career taken from you in terms of injuries.

"You see her just reveling in every play -- like, she gets it. Because she had to sit there and watch other people play when she couldn't. I think sometimes it's that heartbeat that can make a team extraordinary."

Griffin, though, would be the first to pass on the accolades to her teammates, and they really do deserve credit, too. A huge factor Wednesday, as she has been all season, was Cory Montgomery, who had 24 points and was 4-of-8 from 3-point range to stretch Oklahoma's defense.

Another senior, Vonnie Turner, had a nightmare first half, picking up her second foul before even two minutes had elapsed in the game and sitting the rest of the way until halftime.

With her out, two more seniors -- Nicole Neals and Kala Kuhlmann -- stepped in, and didn't just fill up the minutes with Turner out. They did a respectable job of keeping Oklahoma point guard Danielle Robinson in check as much as possible, and Nebraska went into the break up 33-29.

It was a hectic second half for Nebraska, though, which nothing the Huskers aren't used to. In their previous two road games, at Kansas and Missouri, they needed to make big plays late to win.

So on Wednesday, although Oklahoma was up by one with 3:30 left -- and the crowd making the kind of ruckus that even UConn players nine days ago said was disconcerting -- the Huskers were not rattled.

Montgomery's layup gave the Huskers the lead back, 64-63. Then Turner, always known for her defense, picked off a pass and took it in for a layup. She was fouled and converted the 3-point play.

"Biggest play of the game, hands down," Griffin said.

But the Huskers were only getting started in what was a sudden, explosive slamming of the door in the final three minutes. In that stretch, what had been a tight game turned into a 16-point Huskers victory.

Neither Yori nor any of her players even noticed that was the exact same margin by which No. 1 UConn defeated Oklahoma here Feb. 15. While it's only natural for observers to look for ways to compare and contrast Division I's two undefeated teams, since they haven't played each other, the Huskers aren't even thinking about measuring themselves against the Huskies right now.

UConn went undefeated and won the national championship last year. Nebraska was 15-16 and didn't make the NCAA tournament.

This is all new ground for the Huskers, who hope to become just the second team to go undefeated in Big 12 women's play. The other to do it was Oklahoma in 2006.

"There haven't been a lot of titles," Griffin said of the Huskers' women's basketball past. "Nebraska has really come behind us; the whole state has been super-supportive. It means a lot to people. I hope it puts Nebraska basketball on the map. It's what Coach Yori has been trying to do. She definitely deserves it."

And while there will always be endless debate about which conference is the "toughest," there really shouldn't be any arguing about which league has had the most parity at the top in the last decade-plus.

Nebraska became the ninth different program to win or share the Big 12's regular-season title in the league's 14 seasons of existence.

"And it's notable that we won it here," Yori said of clinching the championship on the home court of the Sooners. "Because they have been the dominant team, really. They've won [or shared] it three of the last four years.

"But at the same time, there has been parity. Even though Oklahoma has -- I think -- set itself apart. It's nice to see a North team win -- K-State did it a couple of years ago -- and what also feels good about it is we swept the South."

The league's South Division teams have tended to alternately complain or brag -- or do both at the same time -- about the schedule matrix that has the North schools playing each other twice and the South doing the same, with North and South meeting just once.

Because the South schools have been measurably stronger and generally with better NCAA tournament results -- Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma have been to the Final Four in the past decade -- the North has felt a bit undervalued.

This year, though, no one is shortchanging the Huskers in the respect department. However, there is more work to do. Being this close, they obviously want to finish with a perfect league record. Then they will try to become the first North team to win the Big 12 tournament title since Iowa State in 2001.

Nebraska has never won a league tournament championship, dating back to the Big Eight's first tourney, in 1976.

And then there's the matter of the Huskers continuing to work at securing an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. So there's still a lot left to accomplish.

But Yori told her players it was OK for one night to really feel good about what they've done so far. And Griffin planned to go "all out" to celebrate the Big 12 title.

"I am getting a very ice-cold Diet Coke," Griffin said, "and it's going to be fantastic."

Whoops! Um, Dr Pepper is actually the "official soft drink" of the Big 12, as a corporate partner. But hey, when you win your school's first women's hoops title in two decades, you should get to drink any soda you want.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.