LINCOLN — Jordan Hooper ran around the center circle of a basketball court more than halfway around the world, a Nebraska ranch girl in a Russian city where the sun hardly sets in the summer.
The Husker forward was starting her first game for Team USA in Monday's gold medal contest of the World University Games against the host country. Hooper was nervous, thrilled and uncertain. For her entire basketball career, the 6-foot-2 Hooper has always been the girl to jump at the opening tip. Not Monday.
“I didn't know where the heck I was going to stand,” Hooper said. She eventually found a spot, got her bearings, and helped her team win the gold in a 90-71 victory over Russia. The victory was the last of six wins and the climax of a summer of basketball — a “whirlwind of great times,” as Hooper called it — that NU's top player and lone senior expects will pay off when the Huskers open Pinnacle Bank Arena this fall.
For now, she'll settle on getting to her clinical psychology class this week on time. Lincoln is nine hours behind Kazan, Russia, the northern city where the World University Games were held. Yet the All-Big Ten forward was already three days behind in her class because of the tournament. So she naturally headed first to the basketball offices, wearing a gray shirt outlined with a picture of the state of Nebraska on it. Inside the state, one word: Home.
Hooper's been far from it for nearly a month. There was a week of training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., to prepare for the World University Games. There, she bonded as quickly as she could with teammates — becoming closest with Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, USC's Cassie Harberts, Duke's Tricia Liston and LSU's Theresa Plaisance — and fighting fears that she wasn't good enough to compete. Hooper got encouragement from what she considered an unlikely source: USA assistant and Penn State coach Coquese Washington, whose Nittany Lions have made it a point to play Hooper as physically as possible.
“I didn't really think that highly of her but after this, I have a lot of respect for her,” Hooper said. “And I do appreciate her taking me under her wing. She'd boost your confidence and build you up.”
The women's team traveled to Russia with the men's squad, which finished well out of medal contention. Hooper turned around in her airplane seat a few times to chat with Creighton forward Doug McDermott, one of the stars of the men's team. Hooper knew he played for the Bluejays, but hadn't seen much of his game. Later, in Russia, the women's head coach, Oklahoma's Sherri Coale, told Hooper and the rest to watch McDermott specifically. He never takes a play off, Coale said. I want to be like that, Hooper said to herself. Both ends of the floor. Every time.
So, coming off the bench for the first time since, well, ever, Hooper tried to focus on making a winning play for each possession. A rebound, usually. A good pass. Maybe a basket. Little stuff. Humble stuff.
“Now I know that role — different from a starter, different than being counted on all the time — I think I can bring more to my own team, honestly,” Hooper said. “I can do more. I can push myself more. I can definitely emphasize with role players now. I've been put in that position. I can definitely see where things can get tough for kids.”
The Americans rolled through pool play, smashing Mali 120-32, the Czech Republic 101-61 and Brazil 105-75, battling through officiating sometimes seemingly so biased against the U.S., Hooper said, that “it was eight-against-five.”
In between games, Hooper and her teammates practiced and, without a TV in their rooms, tried to experience Kazan, where the sun “rises at 3 a.m. and doesn't go down until 11 (p.m.),” Hooper said. They visited the Kazan Kremlin, a white sandstone complex built in the 16th century on the order of Ivan the Terrible. Hooper tried some of the less exotic cuisine of the region.
“I steered away from the fish eyes,” Hooper said. “I tried all the sausages. The chicken was good. It tasted like chicken.”
In the medal round quarterfinals, Team USA pounded Sweden 103-72. Hooper played nine minutes. In the semifinals, the team held on for a 79-78 win over Australia. Hooper played 11 minutes.
But Russia, like the Americans, could field a tall team. So Coale announced Hooper, one of her best rebounders, would start the gold medal game. Hooper started “gawking around” at her teammates. Then she caught a glimpse of Coale, who was looking right at her, “and I straightened up real quick.”
This was a final test for Hooper, who'd battled self-doubt at different spots throughout the summer. Was she good enough to make the team? She was. Could she contribute in ways other than shooting? She did. Now, could she transfer those minutes against overmatched teams to starting in the biggest game?
Once she found her spot around the center circle, the answer was yes. She scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds. She played 31 minutes. When she got her gold medal and celebratory bouquet of flowers, she lifted her arms in a prizefighter pose. The photo made the rounds. You could tell it was her first time, Hooper said, laughing. But there, in Russia, Hooper found a new voice. One she expects to bring back to her Husker team. A more assertive voice. A mature voice. One that stops doubting so much. The lesson was a summer long, but it came with a prize — and a point.
“Playing for your school, your country, your family, your friends, your teammates, anyone who's ever, ever done anything for you — you're playing for all of them,” Hooper said. “And to know you actually did something to help the cause, to feel like you're worthy of the gold you get, that's awesome. When the final buzzer went off, I wanted to hug everybody. It's pretty cool that a kid from Alliance, Nebraska, went all the way over to Russia to get that opportunity.”