LINCOLN — Please don’t read this if you play for the No. 17 Nebraska women’s basketball team.
You’ve won six in a row but still trail league-leading Penn State by 1Ĺ games with four to play. A home game against the Nittany Lions — Big Ten bruisers and your foil for the last two years — looms Monday.
Pay those words no mind. Coach Connie Yori wants you right where you’ve been: with tunnel vision on the next game. In this case, a trip to rebuilding Ohio State on Thursday night.
“We have not talked about the Big Ten title — not one second,” Yori said.
Most of the talk in Yori’s press conference Tuesday centered on her collapse at midcourt in Sunday’s win over Indiana. When she asked reporters to focus on basketball, the first question addressed NU’s likely need to win out in order to share the Big Ten crown. Yori said she couldn’t answer the question.
“Ohio State’s scary,” she said of the Buckeyes (14-14 overall and 4-8 in the Big Ten), who have lost their last four games by an average of 17 points. A minute later Yori said: “Everybody’s scary.”
For a Nebraska team that pulled out a one-point overtime win at 10-15 Wisconsin — and lost at 14-11 Northwestern — it’s a fair point. But much like last year, the Huskers have found February momentum. Their RPI has shot up from the mid-70s to the low 30s. Nebraska looks solidly in the NCAA field, hunting for a higher seed. Pretty good, considering a seven-woman rotation on a 10-woman roster.
Or perhaps the chemistry gained without a deep bench is a source of some success. Four of the starters — Jordan Hooper, Hailie Sample, Emily Cady and Tear’a Laudermill — have played together for three years. The Huskers are shooting 44 percent in league play — and 36.6 percent from 3-point range — and the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio in league play is 1.53. That’s better than the 1.10 ratio for the 2010 Sweet 16 team or the 1.08 ratio for the 2013 Sweet 16 team.
“Not having as many rotations — not having as many people to play with — it makes it a lot easier,” Hooper said. “You know exactly who’s going to do what — at what times.”
It helps that sophomore point guard Rachel Theriot barely leaves the floor. She’s averaged 39.4 minutes per game in Big Ten games. If she keeps that pace, she’ll average more league minutes per game than any other player in Yori’s tenure at Nebraska. Lindsey Moore averaged 39.3 minutes on the depth-starved 2011 team.
“She’s got that Gumby body, you know?” Yori said of the 6-foot Theriot, who’s also averaging 14.6 points and 7.6 assists in Big Ten games. “Some kids who are little thicker, sometimes it’s harder for them to play big minutes. But when you kind of have a Gumby body, you can sustain it a little more. She’s got a cross country runner’s body. Maybe she’s not super explosive, but she’s got that long-range conditioning.”
Nebraska’s tried to maintain the energy of the other six players in its rotation — guard Brandi Jeffery and center Allie Havers are the primary players off the bench — by limiting practice exhaustion.
“We never go up and down in practice (with starters),” Yori said. “I mean, that just doesn’t happen.”
Sample said NU players’ conditioning work in the summer prepares them for the grind. These days, they stretch a lot and knead their muscles on a foam roller. As a season wears on, practices also get shorter.
“Unfortunately,” Sample said, “our film sessions have gotten longer.”