Griffin grows into star at Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. -- It was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote about a season on the sidelines for Nebraska forward Kelsey Griffin. In her first three years with the Huskers, she'd dealt with mononucleosis; an additional breathing problem that was never quite figured out; a cracked rib and cartilage damage that forced her to play for a while in a quarterback-like flak jacket; and her father, Jim, battling cancer.

Then in August 2008, before what was to be her senior season, she came down on a teammate's foot during a pickup game. That caused a severe sprain, but for the next couple of months, she kept trying to come back. The pain, though, never went away. She had surgery last December and missed the season. The Huskers went 15-16 without her.

So are you ready for the happy ending?

Well, it's happening right now in Lincoln, and nobody is of a better frame of mind to enjoy it than Griffin is. When you cover sports, you always wish that athletes would "get" it. That they would walk into gyms and look around to file away the mental images that they can keep all their years.

That they would have enough ambition beyond their sport not to be terrified of its ending, but still be passionate enough to savor each day of it. That they would soak up all the energy of working together with their teammates, all the good wishes from fans, all the effort of their coaches -- and then recycle everything back in the direction from which it came.

You always wish for that -- so you rejoice at seeing athletes like Griffin.

"I'm absolutely loving basketball and playing with my team," she said. "This summer … I really got into the best shape that I've been in."

She looked it Sunday as the No. 18 Huskers beat No. 9 LSU 77-63 behind 30 points and 14 rebounds from Griffin. It was a matchup of unbeaten teams, programs that don't have a lot of history with each other. They'd met twice before -- in January in Baton Rouge, La., with Griffin having to watch, and in November 2005, when Griffin was a freshman and LSU was on its way to the Final Four again.

Both of those were LSU victories. Sunday in the Devaney Center, though, Nebraska jumped to an early lead and stayed in control the whole game, improving to a program-best record of 11-0.

LSU coach Van Chancellor came to the media room to wish everyone a merry Christmas and said how grateful he was that "y'all are living in this cold weather, not me." He complimented Nebraska and coach Connie Yori for doing everything better than LSU on this day. He also had a prediction for the 6-foot-2 Griffin's future.

"She looked like an All-American today," Chancellor said. "She'll be a heck of a WNBA player, too. She has all the skills."

Chancellor added that it was "the worst I've been outcoached in about 10 years. Connie had her team 10,000 times better prepared than I did. We weren't ready for this, and that's nobody's fault but my own. I'm going to tell you now, they are a top-10 or -12 team if they play like they did today."

Chancellor is known for a bit of Southern hyperbole, of course. So just for the record, as Nebraska winter days go, Sunday afternoon was not that cold. And maybe the only way one coach could be "10,000" times better prepared is if the other coach's team ended up traveling to the wrong city and missing the game.

But it is no exaggeration that the Huskers have everything they need to be a top-10 team.

"They have the whole package," said LSU senior guard Allison Hightower, who, along with Griffin, was the other marquee star on the court and had 15 points. "Kelsey inside, the shooters on the outside, they were penetrating, knocking down shots, getting to the free-throw line. We just couldn't stop them."

And neither is it stretching the truth to say Griffin has the body type, athleticism and skill to make it at the next level.

"She can do a lot of different things," Chancellor said. "You can't be one-dimensional. You can stay in the WNBA about one year, maybe two, if you are. This kid can do a lot: shoot the ball from outside, rebound, put it on the floor and then post up. She is going to be an ideal 4 player for the WNBA."

Fans nationally might not know Griffin very well or have much idea about her game -- I don't say this lightly; think Kristin Folkl -- simply because they might not have seen a lot of her. The Huskers played in the WNIT when she was a freshman, then lost in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the NCAA tournament her next two seasons.

And all during that time, Griffin played hard no matter what sort of pain -- physical and emotional -- that she was in. Yori knew what an effort that was.

"Two years ago, we had a really good season and she had a great year individually," Yori said of the 2007-08 campaign. "She carried us. But you could just see it wasn't that much fun for her with what her dad was going through.

"I always say Kelsey is as mentally tough a kid as I've ever coached. She always found a way to mentally will herself to do something that at that moment probably wasn't what she wanted to be doing. Watching what she went through being so worried about her dad -- she'd score 26 points, and afterward she'd just look like, uh, …"

Yori at that point spelled out, rather than said, "h-e-l-l." Yori laughingly admitted, though, that she did say something a bit stronger than that last Aug. 28, when Griffin was hurt.

"And it was ongoing," Yori said. "It was a bad, bad sprain. You know how doctors sometimes will say that it's better to break an ankle rather than sprain it really badly? That's what she did.

"We had to prepare for the season like we might not have her, but we weren't sure for a while. So all last fall, I could see it coming. Without her, we're not nearly as good. Nobody wants to hear coaches whining about injuries, but if you lose one of the best players in the country, it's going to change you."

And getting that player back changes a team, too. Griffin credited everyone from the team managers to the concession-stand workers to the parking-lot attendants for their contribution to Sunday's victory, for which the Huskers drew 7,717 fans.

That's just her personality. So is this: She never slipped into a malaise sitting on the bench last season, and she thanked Yori for not letting that happen.

"She basically said, 'You're going to be like an assistant coach,'" Griffin said. "I would still get yelled at after games. Just because I wasn't playing didn't mean I couldn't teach. I knew our system better than younger players did. If they messed up something, I needed to tell them."

Griffin, an Alaska native, spent much of this past summer in Nebraska building her strength and fitness. She was cleared for full-go on the basketball court in August, a full year after the ankle injury. Since then, she has had just one scary moment -- an ankle roll that shook her up.

"For a second, it was like my world was crumbling," she said. "Then I walked it off. I realized, 'Hey, it's OK. The ankle is good to go.'"

Hard as it was on the Huskers not to have Griffin last season, it has actually worked out for the best. This is a deeper and more experienced team, including fellow senior starters Cory Montgomery and Yvonne Turner, such that Griffin gets plenty of help. Even so, she's averaging 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting 61 percent from the field.

Griffin's dad, a pharmacist, is cancer-free and working limited hours again as he regains strength. He and her mother, Jan, who is a nurse, will try to make the long trip from Alaska to Nebraska as much as possible.

You won't be surprised to learn that medicine is in Kelsey's future, too. She aspires to be a doctor and will graduate with a degree in biological sciences in May. First, the WNBA will call -- "She'll be a first-round pick," Chancellor said -- but Griffin now is thinking only about this season and the chance to do everything she can for the Huskers.

"I know the WNBA is something special," Griffin said. "But I have a feeling this season is going to be one of the most special years I'll have in my career as a basketball player. I'm really just trying to get the most out of it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.