Losses mount for Huskers, former surprise team

Nebraska basketball coach Connie Yori knew this season would be tough. Yet what a difference a year makes.

The Cornhuskers (12-10, 2-6) go into Wednesday night's game against No. 1 Baylor sitting 10th in the Big 12, with fading hopes for a postseason berth after losses in four of their last five games.

One year ago this week, they were 21-0, ranked fourth in the nation and well on their way to the Big 12 championship, the NCAA Sweet 16 and a 32-2 record.

"We thought going into the season that a good goal for us would be to be an NCAA tournament team," Yori said Tuesday. "We still have that goal in place. Obviously, we have a challenge ahead of us to make that happen."

The Huskers have been beset by injuries. Only point guard Lindsey Moore, forward Jordan Hooper and centers Catheryn Redmon, Jess Periago and Adrianna Maurer are healthy.

Of course, no one expected the Huskers to repeat their 2010 magic, not with the departures of Big 12 player of the year and All-American Kelsey Griffin and two other all-conference first-teamers.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she remains more surprised by the Huskers' accomplishments last season than by their recent struggles.

"In this business, injuries can really turn your year upside down," Mulkey said. "I just think they're playing extremely hard. They're not winning games, but that doesn't mean they're not doing OK. You have to be fair and look at the big picture. She lost a lot of great players, and she's had some injuries that have affected her. You just keep coaching and make those players better."

Hooper is one of the top freshmen in the league, averaging a team-leading 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds. She's shooting 40.5 percent from 3-pointer range. Moore has increased her scoring to 12.2 points a game.

After those two players, the offense drops off. In league games, the Huskers are last in points (55.1) and shooting (32.6 percent). They're 11th in 3-point shooting (26.7 percent), 3-point defense (38.3 percent) and overall field-goal defense (42.3 percent).

Nebraska, which has the 28th-toughest schedule, started 8-1 and had six top-100 RPI wins. The Huskers had Dominique Kelley in the lineup for three of those.

But the team's most experienced player has missed seven straight games and nine of the last 10 because of joint pain stemming from offseason knee surgery. Kelley is among eight players who have missed games or been limited because of injuries.

The resulting depth problems have forced Yori to scrap her full-court, player-to-player pressure and employ zone defense — a move that would have been unthinkable in past seasons.

Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, whose team beat the Huskers by 20 points last month, said she understands what the Huskers are going through.

Her 2001-02 team finished 32-4 and lost to Connecticut in the national championship game. The next season she lost five players to knee injuries, but the team scuffled its way to a 19-13 record and an NCAA bid. The Sooners lost in the first round, but that wasn't as important to Coale as reaching the tournament.

"That was really a big deal for our program and what in many ways has bridged and sustained the success of going deep into the tournament every year thereafter," she said.

The Huskers can only hope for a similar ending. They're No. 73 in this week's RPI. Short of winning the Big 12 tournament, they probably would need to be in the 40s to have a chance at an at-large bid.

After Baylor, they play five of their last seven games against teams that are in fifth place or lower in the Big 12 standings.

"There's plenty of season left," Yori said, "and we have to stay positive and keep moving forward."