Just like old times for A&M, Nebraska
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Nebraska coach Connie Yori smiled and noted that she has "some great Gary Blair stories." Well, who doesn't, right?
As for Blair, women's basketball's Mr. Congeniality, he reminded reporters that he's old enough to remember when Yori was playing at Creighton. Scrappy devil of a player, she was.
The coaching colleagues will commence pleasantries before Monday's NCAA second-round game here at Texas A&M. And then, it will be a battle to see who heads to Norfolk, Va., for the Sweet 16.
"It's like a Big 12 reunion, really," Yori said after her No. 6 seed Cornhuskers beat Chattanooga 73-59 to set up their meeting with No. 3 seed Texas A&M. "That seems like it's fitting. Gary Blair, he's one of the great coaches and great characters in our game. It will be interesting to go head-to-head."
From 1997-2011, the Huskers and the Aggies did that annually in the Big 12. They'd become conference mates when the Big Eight merged with four Southwest Conference schools for the 1996-97 season.
Then Nebraska left for the Big Ten in 2011. Before this season, Texas A&M joined the SEC. It all still seems rather weird, but such is life now in college athletics. Yesterday's fellow conference member is tomorrow's NCAA second-round foe.
"Look what [we've] done since we left the Big 12," said Blair, whose Aggies defeated Wichita State 71-45 Saturday. "Nebraska automatically went to the top three [of the Big Ten] as soon as they got there. We went to the top three of our league. Says a lot about what we had at that one time in the Big 12. But everything is cyclical."
Technically, Texas A&M tied for fourth in the SEC this season, but the Aggies did win the conference tournament. Maybe that almost counts as top three, right?
As for Nebraska, the Huskers finished sixth in the Big Ten in 2012, but advanced to the league tournament final -- something they never did in the Big 12. This season, they were second in the Big Ten, and lost in the tournament semifinals.
Ultimately, Blair's point that both schools seem to have adjusted OK in their new leagues is valid. But their departures from the Big 12 haven't been so long ago that they've forgotten about each other.
"Connie -- gosh, she plays hard," Blair said. "She was an excellent player, and she instills that in her kids. We've had some knock-down, drag-outs with her, particularly up in Lincoln."
Nebraska leads their series 14-9; five of those games were in the 1980s when they weren't in the same league. Nebraska is 5-6 in College Station, 3-5 during the Big 12 era.
The Aggies had the better of the series in recent years, going 6-2 over their past eight meetings. In 2009-10, when Nebraska came into the Big 12 tournament undefeated, Texas A&M was the team that ended that perfection, beating the Huskers 80-70 in the Big 12 semifinals.
Nebraska point guard Lindsey Moore recalls that; she was a freshman starter then.
"One of the things with him is he always has really good guard play," Moore said of what's been Texas A&M's consistent strength under Blair. "It's going to be a tough matchup, especially playing on their home court."
Moore also pointed out that Texas A&M has balance, because the Aggies are particularly strong in the post as well this season. The 6-foot-4 Kelsey Bone leads the way there, although she had a scoreless first half Saturday with foul trouble.
Wichita State, playing in that program's first NCAA tournament game, hung around with the Aggies for a chunk of the first half, with Bone looking grumpy on the bench. But Texas A&M began to pull away, and by the break had a 35-22 lead.
Then in the second half, Bone was 4-of-5 from the field for 10 points. Senior Kristi Bellock led the Aggies with a career-high18 points, shooting 9-of-12 from the field. Freshmen Courtney Williams had 11 points. Adrienne Pratcher had six points and seven assists. And Karla Gilbert had seven points and three rebounds as she ably filled in when Bone had to sit.
"Again, Karla Gilbert to the rescue; she does the little things right," Blair said of his 6-5 junior. "She comes in and plays her role. Kristi Bellock was there all day ... good decision making. Pratcher was just like an artist drawing on a canvas, dissecting the zone."
Blair said Bone must be more aware of staying out of foul trouble as the tournament continues, something she knows is crucial. Sure, the Aggies have great depth. But for them to advance far in this tournament, they'll need Bone to be a force.
"We had jitters," Bone acknowledged. "When we got that out of the way, we were able to take control of the game.
"I was disappointed in myself; I have to understand that teams are going to have game plans against me. And I help them by picking up silly fouls. It was good to get this first game out of the way, and hopefully I can rebound from that."
It ended up being a comfortable win for the Aggies. However, things were more tense for the Huskers, going against a Chattanooga team that beat Tennessee in November and came into Saturday on a 19-game winning streak.
The teams were tied 32-32 at halftime, and then the Mocs got off to strong second-half start. They pushed their lead to as much as nine before the Huskers began to reel them back in.
Chattanooga was hurting Nebraska from the outside, so Yori knew it was time to scrap the zone defense and switch to the man-to-man her team is very familiar with. That change put the momentum back with Nebraska, and especially with Jordan Hooper.
She was just 1-of-5 from the field for three points in the first half, but caught fire in the second half. At the 4:24 mark with Nebraska clinging to a three-point lead, the Hooper Show took center stage.
She hit three consecutive 3-pointers for her own 9-0 scoring run. Just like that, the Huskers had a double-digit lead. Chattanooga didn't score for the last five-plus minutes of the game.
"We switched defenses at about the 11-minute mark and did a really good job responding," Yori said. "And, obviously, Jordan had a huge second half."
Hooper finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds; Moore had 13 points and seven assists. Hooper, a junior, and Moore, a senior, have been quite a good pairing for three seasons with the Huskers.
To keep that going, though, they'll have to win the equivalent of an old Big 12 road game to make it to the Sweet 16.