Dominique Kelley tweeted after Nebraska’s upset at Texas A&M that she couldn’t decide whether it was more fun to reach the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 as a player in 2010 or as a graduate assistant coach in 2013.
By Wednesday, after thinking it over a couple days, she had it figured out. Yeah, this season’s journey has been a bigger thrill.
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The 2010 team was loaded with talent and won its first 30 games. It would have been a surprise if that team hadn’t reached the Sweet 16.
This season, the Huskers started out with barely enough healthy players to conduct meaningful practices. The team was so inexperienced and lacking in depth that coach Connie Yori junked her freewheeling motion offense and replaced it with the more structured Princeton system. After losing three of five to start Big Ten play, she scrapped her favored full-court man-to-man defense, swallowed hard and played zone.
The Huskers, winners of 13 of 15 games since mid-January, suddenly are the team no one wants to play.
”It’s been more of a ride this year, and I totally think it was unexpected,” said star point guard Lindsey Moore, one of two holdovers from 2010. ”My freshman year, after we got on that streak, everybody kind of expected it. We had high expectations for ourselves this season. I don’t necessarily think everybody else did.”
Next up for the sixth-seeded Huskers (25-8) is Sunday’s game against No. 2 seed Duke (32-2) in the Norfolk Regional.
The Blue Devils swept the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships. They made it to the regional semifinals by rallying from 15 points down in the second half to beat Oklahoma State 68-59 on Tuesday.
”Duke is one of the most talented teams in the nation,” Yori said. ”They have a roster filled from top to bottom with college All-Americans, All-ACC players, high school All-Americans and USA national program players. It seems like they are in the national-championship discussion every year, and there are some really good reasons for that.”
Duke’s 6-foot-3 Elizabeth Williams might be the most intimidating center the Huskers will have seen since they played against Baylor’s Brittney Griner during their Big 12 days. The Blue Devils also play a pressure defense conducive to forcing turnovers.
But Nebraska is on a roll and believes it can play with anybody, especially after Monday’s 74-63 win over Texas A&M on the Aggies’ home court.
”I think we can do it,” Moore said. ”I’m confident in the way we’re playing right now and I think we’re playing our best basketball. And it’s the most important time to play your best basketball.”
Kelley said Yori, the Big Ten coach of the year, has done a masterful job with this season’s team.
That’s not to say she didn’t in 2010, Kelley said. But that team had All-American Kelsey Griffin and three other players who had at least three years of starting experience.
Pressure built on that team as the wins piled up, and Kelley noted that Nebraska was thrust out of its usual underdog role.
”We got a feel for what it was like to be on the other end of that spectrum, to be the Connecticuts, the Dukes, the Baylors. We had this target on our back,” Kelley said. ”I don’t think we were overwhelmed with the pressure, but everybody was out to get us every single night.”
Kelley and her teammates rolled to wins over Northern Iowa and UCLA to reach the regional semifinals, and no one batted an eye. The Huskers, after all, were a No. 1 seed.
Nebraska advanced no further. Kentucky capitalized on Nebraska’s poor shooting in the second half to beat the Huskers 76-67 and end a season that, according to Yori, easily could have extended to the Final Four.
”There’s always a certain degree of pressure in sport,” Yori said. ”But during our 30-game winning streak, we did see virtually every opponent’s best shot. There was also an increase in the requests for our players’ time. Perhaps we did get worn down a bit.”
That won’t be the case this season, Moore said.
”I don’t think anyone is ready for our season to be over,” she said. ”Nobody’s burned out. Everybody wants to keep playing and keep winning. We know this team is special, and we want to prove to everyone why it’s so special.”