A strong showing of fans flooded the Pinnacle Bank Arena seats behind the scorer’s table on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Lincoln.
Fans held signs that read “Oh my Mi’Cole, We Love You” and “Whitney is a winner” and “Shoot a three Anni” and “Awesome Aussie Issie” and “Crash the boards Bella” and “Lex has Husker power.”
There wasn’t a basketball game being played, but instead a celebration. There was a good reason for it, too, because the Nebraska women’s basketball team is officially headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. The Huskers (24-8) are an No. 8 seed of the Wichita Region and will play No. 9 Gonzaga (26-6), the West Coast Conference champs, in the first round in Louisville, Kentucky, this Friday. The game time will be released at a later date.
The top four seeds of the Wichita Region include No. 1 Louisville, No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Michigan, a familiar foe the Huskers have already beaten twice this season, and No. 4 Tennessee. If Nebraska gets past Gonzaga, it’ll likely play the top-seeded Cardinals, who are coached by former Husker assistant coach Jeff Walz, who was in Lincoln from 1997-2001 and coached current Nebraska head coach Amy Williams when she played for Big Red.
Here’s a full look at the Wichita Region:
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) March 14, 2022
Sunday was a fun-filled night inside PBA. After each player was introduced by the voice of Husker women’s basketball, Matt Coatney, Williams gave a short speech, as did two of the team leaders in Sam Haiby and Isabelle Bourne.
Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts then took to the podium to give some words of encouragement, and ended with a line that caused the crowd to start “Go Big Red” chants.
“Passion has a funny way of trumping logic,” Alberts said. “Go Big Red”
After the event, Williams was joined at a postgame interview table along with Bourne, Haiby and Jaz Shelley.
“We’re incredibly excited to finally know who, when, where and to be able to start planning and prepping, and excited for the opportunity in front of us,” Williams said. “Our focus will be solely on Gonzaga and trying to learn as much as we possibly can over them and trying to put together a 40-minute solid performance in that first-round game, and that’s where we’re going to spend the next several days, just locked in and focusing and excited for an incredible opportunity that’s in front of us.”
While the team knew it’d likely make the tournament, the Huskers, who were sitting in chairs three rows deep at midcourt watching the Selection Sunday show on ESPN, had to wait to hear their name called. The Wichita Region was the last to be unveiled, which meant Williams and her players had to wait a bit longer than expected.
“It’s relief, once you can finally see your name and you know who the plan is, where you’re going,” Williams said with a smile. “It’s worked out where we’ve had such a long break since the Big Ten Tournament was over until finding out. I think that prepared us for the patience we needed to be the last bracket revealed.”
Shelley has experience playing in the tournament. She was a member of the Oregon Ducks team that made the Big Dance last year. After being unable to play in the first two games due to rolling an ankle, Shelley got on the court for five minutes against Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Moe, Australia, native sees similarities with this version of the Huskers and the previous successful teams she’s played on.
“I think the teams that I’ve gone the furthest with have been based purely off chemistry, and I think that’s one of the biggest factors that every team has, and I think that I’ve never been a part of a team with this much chemistry that we have within this team,” Shelley said. “So I think this is a really special quality that’s really hard to build in most teams, and I think we have the upper hand with that. And if we go into every game loving what we do and playing together and have smiles on our faces and just go out there and compete and believe, I think that’s going to be awesome going into this tournament.”
For Haiby, having Nebraska’s name called on Selection Sunday is what she’s always wanted to experience. The fourth-year guard is averaging 10.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and four assists this season.
“It’s really special, this is what I came here to do, to get that NCAA Tournament berth,” Haiby said. “We’re super excited, we knew this was going to be a special year. So to finally hear your name called, I think we’ll be ready to go.”
Bourne has enjoyed a strong stretch of basketball lately. The 6-foot-2 forward from Australia is averaging 14.3 points per game in her last nine outings. She’s coming off a 16-point performance in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals against Iowa.
She’s always been a confident player, but sometimes that’s hard to keep up when your shot isn’t falling. The shot is falling right now for Bourne, who’s providing an outside shooting presence as she’s making her 3-pointers at a 36% clip.
“Obviously I had a little bit of a drop in my shooting percentages earlier in the year,” Bourne said, “but really my teammates have stayed confident in me and coach (Williams) as well, just telling me to shoot it when I’m open and having confidence in me to knock it down. Staying with it has been the biggest thing.”
With Alexis Markowski having a sensational first season—she was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year—and being a threat in the paint, that has opened other opportunities for Bourne.
“Teams at the tail end were maybe scheming a little differently with Lex, and that put us in positions to be able to really utilize Issie’s strengths and to have some mismatches in certain situations where we knew she’d have the advantage and we could go to her early inside,” Williams said of Bourne’s recent surge. “Or if people were doubling off or trying to go in, she’s capitalized inside-outside and really knocked down perimeter shots. It’s been a combination of her continuing to work and just capitalizing on the way teams were defending us.”