LINCOLN — In a November practice just before this season's first exhibition game, Nebraska women's basketball coach Connie Yori gathered her team and rattled off five names.
Take the floor, she told them, and they did. You're our five starters, she said.
Freshman forward Emily Cady was one of them. So was another freshman, Hailie Sample. They looked at each other. They held it in. But once they got back to the dorms, Cady said, they flipped out. They jumped. They screamed.
"We're going to start for our first college game!" Cady remembered yelling.
The 6-foot-2 Cady hasn't missed a start yet for the 9-1 Huskers, despite a first semester of long road trips and tough opposing frontcourts. Every game and every mistake carries with it a lesson.
It's been a fun-but-whirlwind collegiate journey thus far for the prep star who won her last 75 games at Seward High School. For the 25th-ranked Huskers, she's been a Swiss Army knife — a utility player who does whatever is asked and scores only when necessary.
Her early-season stat line proves it: 6.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game. She's second on the team in minutes, but just sixth in shot attempts. She's tied for first in blocks.
When NU's two stars — guard Lindsey Moore and forward Jordan Hooper — struggled through their worst halves this season against in-state rival Creighton, Cady kept the Huskers ahead. She drew fouls, got to the line and played a big role in keeping the ball away from Creighton forward Amy Nelson.
Cady finished that night with 13 points and seven rebounds. Funny thing: That's precisely what she averaged as a senior at Seward.
"I love Emily's game," Yori said that night. "I know what she can do — and how good she is — at so many facets of the game. It's not just scoring in this game. You've got to do more than that ... she's good at a lot of things. She picks things up more quickly than I thought."
And Yori knew a lot already. She watched 80 of Cady's high school and club games.
"She even went to my volleyball games," said Cady, who briefly considered Kansas State as a college choice. "She was really dedicated. I thought it was kind of cool."
Yori saw that Cady found a way to fit in. On nights when her teammates were hitting shots, Cady did the dirty work. On nights when they weren't, Cady could float outside the 3-point line and drain long jumpers.
"In the games where she needed to score — she could score," Yori said.
And while competitive, she wears the burden of it easily. When asked if she had played her best game against Creighton, Cady shrugged, smiled and giggled: "I don't know. Did I?"
It's not uncommon for freshmen to start under Yori. Kelsey Griffin started all 32 games in 2005-06. Dominique Kelley started 33 in 2007-08. Moore started 34 in 2009-10 and Hooper started 31 last year. Together, they are probably Yori's best four-year players to date, and each of them she meticulously recruited.
Cady's game isn't quite like any of them. Her creativity is perhaps closest to Griffin, but Griffin had a bigger frame to bull through defenders. Whereas Griffin often put her head down to split double teams and flipped shots from improbable angles, Cady is better at wrapping around defenders for shots and passes.
"She's not the strongest thing in the world," Yori said. "But that's what's exciting — she'll get better at those things."
Like finishing at the basket. Cady had a key three-point play late in the win over Creighton, where she darted down the lane, caught a pass and made the shot while being fouled. Yori, still gimpy from knee surgery complications, pumped both fists and swung out one leg at that play.
Around the Devaney Center, Cady's fans from Seward probably did the same. There are plenty from her hometown dispersed throughout the arena. That won't change anytime soon, especially with Cady's former Seward teammate, Hannah Tvrdy, committing to Nebraska for the 2013 class.
"I always see someone wearing a Seward shirt," Cady said.
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