Nati Harnik, Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska coach Connie Yori high-fived Lindsey Moore when they passed in a hallway of the Devaney Sports Center on Monday evening, a few minutes after the Cornhuskers found out they would play Kansas in the first round of the NCAA women's tournament.
"I'm pumped," a smiling Moore told Yori. "We're going to know all their play calls."
"Nah," Yori said, killing the point guard's joy. "They're running all different stuff now."
Don't get Yori wrong. The Huskers (24-8) know plenty about the Jayhawks (19-12). Nebraska has played Kansas 80 times, more than any opponent, and they will meet again Sunday night in Little Rock, Ark., in the Des Moines Regional.
Before Nebraska joined the Big Ten they played every year as members of the Big Eight and then Big 12. The Huskers split two games with the Jayhawks last season. Moore scored what was then a career-high 33 points when they last met, a 77-61 loss in Lawrence, Kan.
"Playing Kansas, there's not a team that we know probably any better that we could have played in the first round other than maybe Iowa State," Yori said. "But, also, they know us, too. It's just ironic that we're playing a Big 12 team. Any time you can name four, five, six, seven players on a team in an NCAA tournament first-round game without even having to look at a roster, there obviously is a lot of familiarity there."
Though Nebraska was a lock to make the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid, Yori can honestly say she's just glad to be playing this time of year after the tumult her program went through last year and into this past fall.
Nebraska went into its inaugural Big Ten season off a last-place finish in the Big 12, with its head coach bedridden, and with six freshmen forced to play prominent roles.
"I thought we were a year away," Yori said, "but I knew that if things fell into place and we got better that this could happen."
Nebraska will enter the NCAAs with its second-highest win total in program history and having righted itself following losses in four of five games in February.
The Huskers closed the regular season with a 14-point victory over then-No. 8 Ohio State, then beat Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State by 15, 12 and 15 points in the Big Ten tournament before losing 74-70 to Purdue in double overtime.
"Losing some games late in the regular season, our younger kids saw the urgency of how you have to play the whole year," Moore said. "We talked about how our season might be over if we don't take care of business. We took care of business."
The Huskers were one of the biggest stories in the women's game two years ago, rolling off 30 straight wins and finishing 32-2 after making it to the Sweet 16. Yori was the Associated Press national coach of the year.
They lost six seniors from the best team in school history and were decimated by a run of injuries that left them with five healthy players by the end of the 2010-11 season. Nebraska ended up 13-18, 3-13 in the Big 12.
Yori had planned to spend several weeks in the offseason holed up with her staff to get familiar with the 11 new opponents Nebraska would face in the Big Ten. Those study sessions never happened.
She required about a month of hospitalization because of a staph infection and blood clot that developed after what was supposed to be routine knee surgery. She missed early practices and, when she was able to show up, needed a motorized cart to get around the court.
Moore said Yori's absence was hard on the team, but one positive came of it.
"We had to hold each other more accountable, to make sure we were going hard so the (assistant) coaches didn't have to get on us," she said. "When coach Yori came back, we knew what the standard would be."
Leading scorers Jordan Hooper and Moore returned, and the Emily Cady-led freshman class turned out to be the most productive in the Big Ten, combining for 34 points and 18 rebounds a game.
The Huskers, who didn't win a road game in the Big 12 last season, won five of eight in the Big Ten. They played three of their first four conference games on the road and won them all. They knocked off Penn State, which ended up 12-2 at home, and handed Iowa its only conference home loss.
"We were a better road team than home team in some ways," Yori said. "Maybe with all the young kids, they didn't know any better. Mostly, we have some kids who are pretty tough-minded."
Hooper, who made the All-Big Ten first team, upped her team-leading scoring averaging from 14.6 to 19.2 points and her rebounds from 6.3 to 9.3 a game.
Once a spot-up shooter exclusively, Hooper showed willingness to drive to the basket and draw contact. As a result, she's attempted 180 free throws in 32 games compared with 86 in 31 games last season.
Moore made all-conference second team, scoring 15.8 points a game, and fueled Nebraska's run in the conference tournament by scoring 26 points against Iowa and 27 against Purdue.
Cady has had one of the best freshman seasons in school history. She's four steals from becoming the first Nebraska freshman to record 300 points, 200 rebounds, 50 assists and 50 steals.
"What Emily has done has not surprised me," Yori said. "I anticipated her being as good as she is."
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