MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kelsey Griffin has finally had a stress-free year at Nebraska and the top-seeded Cornhuskers are on the cusp of their first appearance in the NCAA regional semifinals because of it.
To get there, Nebraska will have to get past versatile UCLA and its vexing defense in a second-round game Tuesday night at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.
"I'm glad we have a day to practice," Griffin said Monday. "They are very athletic."
Nebraska (31-1) is no slouch, of course, the first team to finish the Big 12 regular season without a loss and a well-balanced, experienced group eager to keep this remarkable 2009-10 run going.
The return of Griffin, a senior who was recently named the Big 12 Player of the Year, has fueled this surge with a renewed focus and greater passion for the game she gained while sitting out.
"I don't think she's playing harder. I think she's playing with a different mindset," coach Connie Yori said. "This is her last crack at it at the college level. She loves these guys, and she wants to do everything she can to make this season great."
Griffin grew up in Alaska and struggled with homesickness when she first arrived at Nebraska. She came down with mononucleosis. As a sophomore, she dealt with a breathing problem similar to asthma. Her dad, Jim, was diagnosed in 2007 with cancer, which he has since fought off. She cracked a rib and played her entire junior year with a protective vest.
Then came the foot problem, and two surgeries. And a medical redshirt season last year.
Hours and hours with athletic trainer Tammy Jones and strength coach Rusty Ruffcorn later, Griffin got back in shape. The perspective from the sideline sure helped, too, as she developed a deeper understanding of the expectations and responsibilities that come with being the star player.
Though there were nerves as she rejoined the team last fall, Griffin was thoroughly refreshed.
"It was really fun. It didn't really feel like a job," she said.
It's been fun all season long. Griffin got her 2,000th career point in Sunday's first-round victory over Northern Iowa, the third player in program history to reach that mark.
The milestone won't mean as much if the Cornhuskers can't avoid an upset by UCLA, though.
Looking strong for a No. 8 seed, the Bruins (25-8) beat up on North Carolina State in the first round with a big boost from their tricky, trapping defense.
Yori said her staff has identified 13 or 14 different schemes UCLA uses, from standard half-court man to man to a sneaky, speedy backcourt trap the Bruins use with the goal of putting their opponent in a panic.
"We have not seen that style for any length of time," Yori said.
The Bruins won't be intimidated by a No. 1 seed, with three losses to Pac-10 rival Stanford and another to Tennessee this season. One of their problems has been consistency.
"Sometimes I don't recognize what we're in, but as long as they are putting that second effort there," coach Nikki Caldwell said, joking about the "moan" defense she occasionally has seen from her players with some in man and the rest in zone.
Caldwell has used the different defenses to take advantage of skill sets, but also to keep her team sharp.
"I like being able to change up. I think it's fun for them. They don't get bored," she said.
UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder, Jasmine Dixon, has been anything but bored after returning to the Los Angeles area, near her hometown of Long Beach. She transferred from Rutgers five games into her freshman season and became eligible to play for the Bruins seven games into this season.
"Having to sit out for the rest of that year was hard, but now it was worth it," Dixon said. "Now I'm here to help contribute."