On Saturday, Kansas University women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson and Nebraska women’s coach Connie Yori were in the same high school gym recruiting for the future.
Little did they know, their immediate future would include a head-to-head match-up in this week’s NCAA Tournament.
For the first time in Henrickson’s eight seasons at Kansas — and the first time since 2000 — KU earned an at-large bid to the NCAAs. The 11th-seeded Jayhawks will play No. 6 seed Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Little Rock, Ark., in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I saw her, got up and walked over and said, ‘Hey, congratulations on a great year. I never got to see you play, so talk to me about your team,’” recalled Henrickson of her encounter with Yori. “I told that to the (KU) players, and they asked if she talked to me. I said, ‘Yeah, she talked to me, but I talked about us, too.’”
The Jayhawks learned of their match-up with the former Big 12 foe Monday night in front of a crowd of more than 50 supporters and media members in the Naismith Room at Allen Fieldhouse. It was delivered in dramatic fashion. With the ESPN broadcast of the women’s selection show blaring throughout the room, the Jayhawks watched three full regionals get released without them.
The first uneasy moment of the night came shortly after 6:06 p.m., when the team saw that fellow bubble friend and conference-mate Texas, a team the Jayhawks had beaten twice this season, was in as a No. 9 seed. The news created a stirring reaction.
“I didn’t know what to think,” junior point guard Angel Goodrich said. “I was a little frustrated at first, just thinking in my head, ‘What’s that do to us?’”
Not long after — when the second of four regionals was released — several Jayhawks felt their hearts skip when they saw “Kansas St.” come across the screen as a No. 8 seed. Once they realized it actually was the Wildcats, most members of the team laughed. That included Henrickson, who said, though heart-wrenching, the moment provided a needed dose of relief.
After three full regions were out, the Jayhawks were down to the nitty gritty. Although 16 spots remained, the Jayhawks realistically knew that they only had a shot at two or three of them. Collectively, they all leaned forward in their chairs and stared a little harder at the TV screen hanging on the wall. When the analysts reached the bottom half of the Des Moines bracket, the magic happened, and the place exploded.
“I was like, ‘They would do that,’” said Goodrich of the selection show waiting until the very end to reveal the Jayhawks had made it.
In the end, the KU women learned that their résumé was good enough to earn a spot in this year’s field of 64, and that set off a wild celebration that brought a few tears, lots of hugs and a pile of chairs that at one time served as the seats for a nervous bunch and later the perfect backdrop for one heck of a party.
“It’s really, really cool, and their reaction is the best,” a still-glowing Henrickson told media members shortly after the celebration subsided. “Just listening to them and watching them was priceless. Seeing their reaction at the end is exactly what you want to see from them, and you want all of your student-athletes to feel that. I’m just really happy for them.”
Despite finishing the season with two victories in its final eight games and bowing out in the quarterfinals of last weekend’s Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks (19-12 overall, 8-10 Big 12) made the NCAA field as an at-large selection, one of seven schools from the Big 12 to earn a bid. Many believed it was the strength of the conference, and the Jayhawks’ five road victories within it, that helped them qualify.
“I feel like we’re in the best conference in the country,” said Aishah Sutherland, the team’s lone senior. “Eight (Big 12) teams probably should have been selected, but seven is good. We’re in it, and that’s all that matters.”
Added Henrickson: “We felt like how well we played and how hard we played down the stretch and being in the best women’s basketball conference in the country would help us.”
KU’s focus now shifts from sweating out a tourney bid to preparing for the Cornhuskers. Last year, in its final season in the Big 12, Nebraska swept two games against the Jayhawks, including a 25-point victory in Lincoln, Neb.
With former Nebraska assistant (2005-10) and current KU assistant Tory Verdi now on their side, the Jayhawks believe they’ll be ready for the challenge. Verdi was one of the people in the room Monday who was moved to tears. He also kick-started one of the team’s celebratory jump circles.
“Nebraska … we used to play them,” Sutherland said. “We know all about them, and Tory used to coach there, so that’s gonna help a lot.”
Added Goodrich: “This whole weekend’s been nerve-racking, just waiting for this moment and wondering what’s gonna happen. But we got what we wanted, and it was worth the wait. It really was.”