COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Just after the buzzer — as the bigger, faster, home-team players had conceded and hung their heads — two best friends in red laughed, jumped and exchanged a bear hug near their bench.
One more weekend of basketball for Lindsey Moore and Jordan Hooper. One more weekend for Nebraska in the NCAA tournament.
Husker headliners who have carried the team for three years and roomed together for two, Moore and Hooper on Monday night delivered sixth-seeded NU its second berth in the Sweet 16 with a 74-63 knockout of No. 3 seed Texas A&M, which just a day before brimmed with certitude of its eventual victory. NU twice built leads of 16 points, and never had a cushion less than seven points in the second half.
The win sets up Nebraska to play in Norfolk, Va., against the winner of Tuesday night's game between Duke and Oklahoma State. The Blue Devils are the higher seed and the home team. Thanks to Moore and Hooper, the home court advantage did the Aggies little good and extended Moore's sparkling career by one more game.
“Jordan doesn't want our season to end because she doesn't get a chance to play with Lindsey again,” Nebraska coach Connie Yori said.
In a signature performance, Moore scored 20 points and dished out 10 assists — including two key dimes to sophomore forward Hailie Sample in the final minutes. Moore repeatedly turned around A&M defenders and drew double teams, only to calmly flip the ball to an open cutter or shooter.
“You don't think she sees you,” Hooper said, “but she sees everything.”
Hooper scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds. More important, she stood literally nose-to-nose A&M star center Kelsey Bone, limiting her to as many points (13) as Bone had spats with teammates.
Though it shot 47 percent, the Aggies' offense looked flustered, taking quick shots, throwing errant passes and looking for fouls that weren't there to call.
Further, Nebraska consistently limited A&M to one shot, outrebounding a team with two 6-foot-4 post players 39-27. Sample's 11 boards more than doubled that of Bone.
“It's Nebraska,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “That's all that needs to be written about it. We just got our butts kicked.”
Even if one Aggie player said Sunday NU had no chance of winning at Reed Arena, where 5,882 fans grew more surprised and irritated with each Husker bucket.
“I guess they underestimated us,” Sample said.
Said Moore: “They looked at us skinny girls and they thought they were going to push us around.”
It never happened. Taking advantage of Aggie turnovers and running their offense crisply, the Huskers (25-8) played arguably their best first half of the year. A couple early 3-pointers did briefly give A&M (25-10) a 12-6 lead, but Hooper and guard Brandi Jeffery scored NU's next 10 points, helping draw the Huskers to a 16-all tie with Jeffery's corner 3-pointer.
Nebraska then went on a 9-0 run with three layups and another Hooper 3. Blair slipped off his maroon coat.
Why? Against A&M's aggressive, deny-the-ball defense, Nebraska kept getting back-door layups out of the Princeton-style offense Yori installed in the offseason. Blair said Bone wasn't supposed to collapse on Moore when the point guard knifed into the lane, but she did, and Moore found teammates open as a result.
The Aggies' young roster committed six early turnovers and consistently took jumpers early in the shot clock, failing to get the ball to Bone. Hooper face-guarded Bone, a rare kind of post defense that few teams use. Yori employs it because her post players, she said, are “slight of build.”
A&M cut the lead to 27-25 and stayed close until Nebraska's 11-2 run to end the half. Freshman Rachel Theriot scored seven of those points on a mid-range jumper, a top-of-the-key 3-pointer and spinning jumper at the halftime buzzer to give NU its 43-32 lead.
Aggie fans hoping for a big run to start the second half instead watched Moore hit a jumper, freshman Tear'a Laudermill hit a 3-pointer and Hooper make two free throws for a 50-36 lead. That cushion grew to 16 twice, the last at 60-44 with 9:51 left. Thanks to reserve guard Jordan Jones' two steals and three long 3-pointers, A&M twice cut the lead to seven in the final three minutes, but the Huskers answered both times with Moore finding Sample for wide open layups.
“There was a stretch where they turned it up — and we handled it,” Yori said.
Said Bone: “Every time we made a big shot and got the crowd into it, they hit a big shot. That's what they're supposed to do. They're an experienced team.”
And the one moving on to Norfolk for a game on Easter. Should second-seeded Duke beat the Cowboys, Nebraska will be playing a 32-win ACC champion. A victory in the Sweet 16 round brings a probable matchup with top-seeded Notre Dame.
But Hooper said her team's up for anything now. Moore and Hooper are hitting on all cylinders. The team remains healthy — and ready to push further than even the 2010 Sweet 16 team was able to achieve. NU's saved its best — for right now.
“We had a real good locker room pow-wow,” Hooper said. “We're enjoying each other and playing for the moment.”
Contact the writer:
402-202-9766, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH