Huskers earn return trip to KC
MINNEAPOLIS -- Nebraska's players and coaches were in their hotel rooms Monday night watching Texas A&M get upset by Gonzaga. There were some mixed feelings.
The Huskers were, mostly, rooting for their fellow Big 12 team to do well, although freshman point guard Lindsey Moore admitted she was cheering for the Bulldogs. For good reason; she's from Covington, Wash., and for two seasons was teammates with Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot at Kentwood High.
But overall, the Huskers might have been left with just a little sense of unease after seeing the only team to beat them this season -- the Aggies defeated Nebraska in the Big 12 tourney semifinals -- get knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.
"As much as we've tried to make light of it and dismiss pressure, there is some," Nebraska coach Connie Yori said. "Whereas I think during the Big 12 season nobody had really expected us to win the Big 12. Now here we are as a 1-seed, so the expectations change. So tonight was a little bit of a relief to get this win."
The Huskers did indeed get it Tuesday night, an 83-70 victory over No. 8 seed UCLA, and made the school's first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in either women's or men's basketball. But there was no huge on-court celebration or boisterous locker room. All season, as the wins kept piling up, the Huskers never got carried away. And when they finally lost to Texas A&M, they stayed calm, too.
Nebraska has done what it has in this historic-for-the-program season by being about as even-keeled as an aircraft carrier docked on a windless day.
OK, that might be overstating it a bit the Huskers did have a bit of the jitters against the pressing and trapping of the Bruins at the start of Tuesday's game.
"I wasn't necessarily freaked out or anything when Texas A&M lost; that was really good, exciting basketball to watch," Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin said. "But I definitely felt a little tight at the start tonight. I try to enter games loose and relaxed, but there is pressure as the 1-seed going against the 8-seed. They have nothing to lose, you know?"
And the Bruins played that way, getting off to a 7-0 lead and keeping the game close through the first half, after which Nebraska had gained a 35-30 edge. But during the first half, UCLA starters Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker both got into foul trouble, and that broke the Bruins' early momentum.
"I thought it really disrupted us with the play-calling and them being out of the game," UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell said. "For us, we can't overcome that."
The Bruins -- whose only losses since Jan. 17 came to NCAA No. 1 seeds Stanford and Nebraska -- also couldn't overcome sending the Huskers to the foul line for 38 attempts. Nebraska missed 13 of them, which on another night might have been a big worry. But not with the Huskers hitting eight 3-pointers in the game and shooting 65 percent from the field in the second half. They gained a lead and maintained it."Nebraska has the inside play, the outside play, the ability to shoot the 3, the ability to put the ball on the floor," Caldwell said. "They are great at playing with each other, with player movement and ball movement. This is a lot of balance there."
To wit, Nebraska had three players score in double figures -- Dominique Kelley had a career-high 22 points, Griffin 18 and Vonnie Turner 12 -- plus two others with nine each (Moore and Cory Montgomery).
Moore had seven turnovers against the Bruins' pressure, but she also had 11 assists. For what it's worth, Vandersloot's line against the Aggies on Monday: nine points, six assists and 11 turnovers.
"Courtney was my mentor for two years when we played together," Moore said. "So it's cool to see her do great things out there and take care of her team. She's a big part of their success."
And Moore has been a key element for the Huskers, a team that has six seniors but a rookie as the point guard. Nebraska identified Moore early in recruiting as a main target, but she had plenty of opportunities to stay out West, too.
"I loved the chemistry here when I visited, and I knew I'd be taken very good care of here," Moore said of choosing Nebraska. "Coming into this, Coach expected a lot of me, and I expected a lot of myself. This is such a great team, I had so many leaders and people helping me."
Moore agreed with Griffin that the Huskers did feel some nerves early on. But once they got going, it was business as usual.
"We knew the things that we weren't doing were things we could control, like defensive rebounding and taking care of the ball," Griffin said. "It was just settling in and knowing it was going to be OK. Taking a couple of breaths and settling down."
Now the Huskers (32-1) take another deep breath and then head south to Kansas City, just a three-hour drive from Lincoln, Neb. The Huskers, who were recently in KC for the Big 12 tournament, will face another program that is in unfamiliar NCAA territory: No. 4 seed Kentucky.
The Wildcats have been to the Sweet 16 once previously -- in the first NCAA tournament in 1982, well before any of the current players were even born. The field that year had just 32 teams, so winning one game got you into the regional finals.
In other words, Nebraska and Kentucky really are new kids on the block.
"I really don't know anything about them; honestly, I haven't looked at them enough to know what they do," Yori said. "I know we'll have to make adjustments. But the adjustment we made tonight was a lot more significant than what you normally have to do. We basically backed off and said, 'OK, stop the drive.'
"I really felt like this game was the one that was going to be the hardest because there was some underlying pressure to get back to Kansas City, for our fans. And you're a 1-seed, so if you lose in this round or the first round, there are a lot of folks who'd think that you had a failure of a season. So in a lot of ways, we were probably more relieved than we were excited."
Now, though, the excitement can build over the next several days, as there's more to talk about in Nebraska this March than just spring football.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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