Things have been pretty relaxed the last few days for the Kansas University women’s basketball team.
The relief of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in coach Bonnie Henrickson’s eight-year tenure has a lot to do with that.
The chipper group of Jayhawks, preparing for a 6:50 p.m. Sunday first-round game in Little Rock, Ark., against former Big 12 mate Nebraska, has been joking in the locker room, and the mood during practice warm-ups has been light.
During a shooting competition earlier this week, freshman forward Bunny Williams chose Henrickson as her partner. The coach joked that Williams might want to pick a teammate with a little more bounce in her step before telling freshman guard Asia Boyd to stay close by, because Henrickson might need a sub in a hurry.
It is in situations such as that, the coach said, where the sense of ease is most evident.
Senior forward Aishah Sutherland, KU’s leading scorer now that junior forward Carolyn Davis is out for the season with a dislocated knee and ACL tear, said the team is soaking up the fun that accompanies a tournament berth. Regardless of what the Jayhawks are doing, everyone is in a good mood.
“It’s been great. It’s my senior year, and we’re going to the NCAA Tournament,” Sutherland said. “It can’t get any better as a senior.”
The 6-foot-2 forward from Perris, Calif., said earning a spot in the Big Dance solidifies KU’s position as one of the top teams in the country. Plus, Sutherland, Davis, Angel Goodrich, Monica Engelman, Natalie Knight, Tania Jackson, Chelsea Gardner, CeCe Harper, Asia Boyd and Bunny Williams will now be remembered as the team that didn’t have to play in the WNIT and instead helped Henrickson break through and get KU in the NCAAs.
“We accomplished a great thing,” Sutherland said. “… All our hard work has paid off.”
Between the exuberance of experiencing March Madness and entering the tournament as a No. 11 seed, Sutherland said the Jayhawks (19-12) are in an ideal spot.
“I feel like we’re relaxed. I feel like there’s not any pressure on us,” she said. “We need to win this game, we want to win this game. We’re capable. We don’t really have anything to lose, I guess.”
Gardner said the locker room chatter all week has surrounded going to Little Rock and playing hard against No. 6 seed Nebraska (24-8).
“We don’t have pressure at all,” the freshman forward said. “I think we go in and just do what we’ve been doing.”
Henrickson, who coached Virginia Tech to five NCAA Tournament berths in seven seasons before coming to Kansas, said the Jayhawks might not feel that free and easy come Sunday night. She said the players might sense the scope of playing on a national stage once they check out the Jack Stephens Center and see some of the hoopla that accompanies the tournament.
“I think there’s pressure,” Henrickson said, “because we’ve got to win.”
The good news is, the Jayhawks have experience in playing under the gun of late. They won two of their last four regular-season games, getting them away from Allen Fieldhouse, at Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
“It (the pressure) shouldn’t feel any different than it did on that trip to Lubbock (Texas) and that trip over to Norman (Okla.),” Henrickson said. “That all felt the same.”