LINCOLN — Emily Wood was so nervous she got hot. She wanted someone to open a door inside the house of Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams, 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’s screen. 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 the Austin, Texas subregional hosted by second-seeded Texas. The NU-ASU 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 no disrespect to the Sun Devils. 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.
They won nine road games. They beat five opponents inside the RPI Top 50. The women’s selection committee doesn’t use the quadrant system like the men’s selection committee did, but if it had, Williams’ assistants told her Nebraska finished 7-6 in Quadrant 1 games.
Once the Huskers (21-10 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten) beat Michigan in the league tournament, they felt like they’d done more than enough to secure a bid. The week between that win and ESPN’s tournament show was harder to wait through than the previous month when Nebraska had games to play.
Then, on Sunday, Nebraska wasn’t on the NCAA’s eight-team list of teams battling for the final four spot. 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). Nebraska got a 10, too.
“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.”
Nebraska’s first-round opponent, Arizona State, made its fifth-straight NCAA tournament. ASU has won at least one game in the last four tournaments, and coach Charli Turner Thorne has won 421 games in Tempe, second-most in Pac-12 history. One of Arizona State’s graduate assistants is Husker legend Lindsey Moore, the NU 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, whose recruiting profile quickly soared above a mid-major program. “She was a very special player. We watched her play quite a bit.”
A sweep of California and key wins over Stanford, Oregon State and Buffalo — all four teams are in the NCAA tournament — helped seal ASU’s at-large bid.
Second-seeded Texas will host the Austin subregional. The Longhorns (26-6) were the second-best team in the Big 12 behind Baylor, which beat UT three times. Texas also lost by just five points to No. 1 Connecticut. Texas averaged about 5,000 paid fans per home game.
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 nearly fully recovered from a shoulder injury she suffered in the regular-season finale at Maryland. Backup point guard Bria Stallworth, who’d missed several games toward the end of the regular season, is also available.
Fresh, fully-rested and excited. It’s a good recipe for a NCAA tournament-bound team.
Monday night, the euphoria still showed on Wood, Whitish and Jasmine Cincore’s faces. 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 very much to them. Two seniors who stayed after their former coach, Connie Yori, resigned amid scandal. Two seniors who weathered a 7-22 season and all the questions that went along with it.
“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.