Nebraska women complete one-year turnaround with NCAA tournament berth

Nebraska women complete one-year turnaround with NCAA tournament berth
Nebraska women's basketball players Emily Wood, left, Jasmine Cincore, middle, and Hannah Whitish, right, talk about their excitement to participate in the NCAA tournament. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — Emily Wood was so nervous she got hot. She wanted someone to open a door inside Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams’ house, where Wood and her teammates had gathered to see if NU had landed in the NCAA tournament.

The Huskers had to wait until the last four of the 64-team bracket popped up on ESPN. But they made it as a No. 10 seed. One year after posting the worst record in school history, Nebraska improbably posted one of the biggest turnarounds in NU athletics.

“I’ll admit I was more than a little misty-eyed,” Wood said.

“She had tears streaming down her face,” leading scorer Hannah Whitish said. “Which gave me some tears.”

“It’s just so special,” Wood said. “We’ve worked so hard.”

The reward: A 2:30 p.m. Saturday date with seventh-seeded Arizona State, a perennial Pac-12 powerhouse, in Austin, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Williams, talking to media 90 minutes after the big reveal, said she didn’t know much about Arizona State. The players were so busy celebrating just making the tournament that they had to ask, a few minutes after the reveal, who, again, they were playing.

That’s the reaction of a team that couldn’t have predicted, coming off a 7-22 campaign, that they’d make the NCAA tournament. But their confidence grew as the season wore on, and a team without superstars, Williams said, built great chemistry.

Once the Huskers (21-10, 11-5 Big Ten) beat Michigan in the league tournament, they felt like they’d done more than enough to secure a bid.

Then, on Sunday, Nebraska wasn’t on the NCAA’s list of eight teams battling for the final four spots. That made Williams — and Wood — even more confident NU was in.

But ESPN made the Huskers “sweat it out,” Williams said. Nebraska was the last of six Big Ten teams announced in the field. Ohio State got a 3 seed, followed by Maryland (5), Iowa (6), Michigan (7) and Minnesota (10).

“When all those brackets were going by and we weren’t seeing our name, it was kind of getting a little nerve-wracking,” Williams said. “Once the players saw that ‘N’ it was just an immediate joy. They were very, very excited. Lots of screaming, lots of emotions, lots of jumping up and down.”

Arizona State, made its fifth straight NCAA tournament. One of Arizona State’s graduate assistants is Husker legend Lindsey Moore, the point guard who helped lead NU to two Sweet 16 appearances.

The Sun Devils (21-12) are led by former Omaha Benson star Kianna Ibis, who averages 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds this season.

“We’re very familiar with her and her family,” Williams said of Ibis. When Williams was at South Dakota, she recruited Ibis. “She was a very special player. We watched her play quite a bit.”

Nebraska should be close to 100 percent health for Saturday, Williams said. Freshman forward Taylor Kissinger had her best practice in weeks, Williams said, and is nearly fully recovered from a shoulder injury. Backup point guard Bria Stallworth, who missed several games toward the end of the regular season, is also available.

Monday night, the euphoria still showed on the faces of Wood, Whitish and Jasmine Cincore. Satisfaction, too. Cincore and Wood, both seniors, made the NCAA tournament as true freshmen. Their minutes were limited, and they didn’t quite appreciate the sheer amount of work that went into securing that bid in 2015.

Now, three years later, this bid belongs to them. Two seniors who stayed after their former coach, Connie Yori, resigned amid scandal. Two seniors who weathered a 7-22 season.

“Seeing our name up there and all of us embracing each other, this team is something special,” Cincore said.

“For us as seniors, to be able to leave knowing this program’s back where we want it to be — playing in the NCAA tournament — that’s really special for us,” Wood said.

After excruciating wait, elation when Creighton women make NCAA basketball tournament field

Creighton had already waited a week. The 40 minutes of commentary and commercials pre-empting its paramount moment in Monday’s selection show felt like another week.

So it’s no wonder that the Jays, packed inside the player lounge at Sokol Arena to watch the ESPN broadcast, leapt out of their seats and started hugging and screaming as soon as it was revealed that CU had made the NCAA tournament field.

There were tears shed. And selfies taken. They huddled around at one point and just started jumping. Even well after the selection show had ended, the players were still fired up — sitting with one another in a circle as they laughed, chatted and reflected on the emotional apex after a stressful week.

“I think it’s just honestly one of the greatest feelings ever to experience something like that with the people that you love,” senior forward Kylie Brown said.

Now they hope to make more lasting memories.

The Jays (18-12) are in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. This time, they are a No. 11 seed and are set to face No. 6 seed Iowa (24-7) at 5 p.m. Saturday in Los Angeles. The winner likely plays No. 3 UCLA, which beat CU earlier this year.

If the Jays secure two upset wins this weekend, they would advance to Kansas City — the same route rival Nebraska would take. The Huskers, seeded No. 10 in the Kansas City region, also had to wait until the end of the selection show Monday before they found out their fate.

Creighton found out 24 hours earlier, though, that if it did earn an at-large spot Monday, it would be one of the last four teams included in the field.

The selection committee released on Sunday a list of eight teams that were vying for the field’s final four spots. CU was one of those teams.

The Jays admittedly had figured as much since a loss to Marquette on March 5 in the Big East tournament. But Sunday’s made-for-TV tease ended up intensifying the tension inside Creighton’s lounge as the bracket was unveiled Monday.

Buffalo got a No. 11 seed. Oklahoma appeared as a No. 12. Minnesota was a No. 10.

The broadcast was half over, and three of the last four spots had been filled.

“We were a little on edge,” senior forward Bailey Norby said.

But they also had reason to be confident.

They challenged themselves with a difficult nonconference schedule — a slate that, in retrospect, probably gave Creighton the boost it needed to earn a bid, coach Jim Flanery said. The Jays had a three-game losing streak in January, but they were relatively consistent aside from that. They ended up beating five NCAA tournament teams.

There was no guarantee, though. Not until it became official Monday night, which was a special moment for everyone within CU’s program.

“The elation that you feel when that name goes up — and when you don’t know it’s going to come up — is unmatched,” Flanery said.

Notes

» The Jays will make their seventh NCAA tournament appearance. Four of those have come during Flanery’s tenure.

» Creighton’s opponent, Iowa, tied for third place in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes had an eight-game winning streak snapped when they lost 90-89 to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament earlier this month.

» CU is 5-7 all time against Iowa. The two teams haven’t played since 2006, though Flanery said they have played in a closed preseason scrimmage for the past seven years.

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