- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- What a relief for Nebraska. It looks like the Huskers really will go to the NCAA tournament this year.
Um, wait. Wasn't that already a done deal, even before the No. 16 Huskers overwhelmed No. 8 Penn State 94-74 on Monday in a 3-point shooting extravaganza? Sure it was ... to pretty much everyone except Nebraska coach Connie Yori.
"I'm always the last one to think that we're in the tournament," Yori said. "This put us in the tournament. And so, you can kind of relax and play. Maybe I could take a deep breath, too. That would probably be good for my health."
That's Yori -- cracking wise, as usual, at her own expense. On Feb. 16, Yori fainted during the Huskers' victory over Indiana here at Pinnacle Bank Arena. It turned out to be from the effects of dehydration and an infection, but Yori was back on the sidelines four days later at Ohio State. Mortified, of course, that anyone would have been worried about her.
"I've gone now three consecutive games without passing out," Yori joked. "Two of them were coaching this team, and then I coach my third-grade son's team as well the other day. So I'm back on track."
While Yori has a three-game no-fainting streak going, her Huskers have an eight-game winning streak in the works. Monday, they were led by Tear'a Laudermill's 27 points on a special night for the 5-foot-9 guard. Pretty cool to get a career-high in scoring the first time your big brother gets to watch in person at one of your college games.
"I actually had no idea he was coming; they surprised me," said Laudermill, a junior from Riverside, Calif. "I started crying. I was like, 'Oh, my goodness! Let's go!'"
Laudermill's brother, Theron, played collegiately at Cal State San Bernardino. Laudermill hit 7-of-10 3-pointers Monday, tying a Nebraska single-game record. On this night, did she think she could have defeated her brother in a game of H-O-R-S-E?
"Definitely," she said, laughing.
The Huskers as a team hit 16 of 22 from behind the arc, a scorching 72.7 percent. It's the second-highest total of 3-pointers in any game in Nebraska history, and the most ever in a conference game -- be it Big Eight, Big 12 or Big Ten.
Now that's a night to remember. Unless you're Penn State, in which case you'd like to erase Monday from the memory bank. The Lady Lions came in with a 5-1 series edge over the Huskers, and had won by double digits in their previous two visits to Lincoln.
There are losses that teams can learn from, and others that are best to flush away, if you will. This one was the latter for Penn State, which had not lost a road game in conference play this season before Monday.
"It was easily our worst defensive performance of the year," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "I thought Nebraska played extremely well. They pulled on the energy from the crowd. They were just clicking on all cylinders tonight. And when you meet a team that's having one of those nights where everybody was having a good night, they're tough to beat."
Until this week, Yori and her staff really had not talked to the Huskers about the chance to win or share the Big Ten title. But before the matchup against Penn State, Yori pointed out something to her team:
"Yesterday, we said, 'Have you looked at the standings?'"
The Huskers and Michigan State were tied in second at 10-3 in the league, behind Penn State at 12-2. Meaning if the Huskers could win their last three regular-season games, they would be in the mix for the top seed at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
After Monday night's results, here's how the Big Ten looks: Penn State is 12-3 with a Saturday home game against Michigan left. The Spartans beat Minnesota, so they're 11-3 with a game at Northwestern on Thursday, and at home against Indiana on Sunday.
And the 11-3 Huskers? Their Thursday/Sunday games are against last-place Illinois and at Purdue, against which Nebraska seems to specialize in epics.
In their five meetings with the Boilermakers since joining the Big Ten in 2011-12, the Huskers are 1-4, with three of the games going to overtime. (Actually one was double OT, and another was triple OT.) In their Jan. 19 game in Lincoln this season with Purdue, Nebraska lost 77-75 on a Boilermaker basket with 1 second left.
After that, Nebraska fell 63-59 at Northwestern on Jan. 26. At that point, the Huskers were 3-2 in the Big Ten. Time for concern? Actually, no -- not even for the noted worrywart Yori.
"When we weren't playing well, I wasn't worried about us going into the tank," she said. "We have too many good-character kids to take us down the wrong path. I didn't necessarily expect us to win eight in a row, though."
Yet that's what the Huskers have done, and no victory has been more impressive than Monday's. For a national television audience on ESPN2, Nebraska put on a clinic, especially in the first half.
The Huskers hit 11 of 14 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes, and held Penn State star Maggie Lucas scoreless. With Nebraska leading 52-30 at the break, the game was essentially already over.
Lucas ended up cobbling together 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting, but the defensive effort on her by Hailie Sample and Laudermill was superb. Ariel Edwards led Penn State with 24 points.
Thursday, the Huskers will honor their only senior, standout Jordan Hooper. Yes, we've gone this long in a story about Nebraska without mentioning her, which only goes to show what a team triumph (26 assists) it was Monday for the Huskers.
Hooper certainly played a big part, though, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Her hope is that the Illinois game won't be the last time she plays at home; brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena is an NCAA regional site this year. So Nebraska would have to make the Sweet 16 -- which it did last year -- to get another chance to thrill the Big Red fans here after this week.
Suffice to say, if they keep playing like they did Monday, the Huskers will be a tough matchup for just about anybody in March.
17dBonnie D. Ford