LINCOLN — As Connie Yori rattled off Monday the “great things” going on around the Nebraska women’s basketball program, she had to pause and note the absence of her usual cautious self.
“I sound positive today,” the NU coach said. “What’s new? This is the first time I’ve ever been positive. I must have had too much coffee this morning.”
Yori does drink coffee out of a wide, white plastic cup instead of a mug, so perhaps she was overcaffenated. Or perhaps, in Yori’s 12th season, Husker women’s hoops is ready for its closeup.
NU is coming off a Sweet 16 season, has four returning starters — including All-America candidate and Alliance native Jordan Hooper — and the one who isn’t, point guard Lindsey Moore, just won a WNBA title in her rookie year with the Minnesota Lynx.
“First year in the WNBA, and you get a ring? What a chump,” Hooper joked about her best friend.
But it’s new Pinnacle Bank Arena — selected to host one of four NCAA tournament regionals in 2014 — that’s created more excitement and momentum around the program. Fans can get a sneak peek of the Huskers on Tuesday when they host their Big Red Tip-Off practice from 5 to 7 p.m.
“We’re treating it as a practice. ... This is a good opportunity to be in front of some fans,” Yori said. “We’re not going to be in our uniform, but we will be in the arena.”
“It’s huge,” Hooper said of the arena. “That’s the first thing — and only thing — I’ve really noticed.”
As of Oct. 9, the program had sold 3,108 season tickets, a spokesman said. That’s 1,000 more than last year and the most in school history. The arena’s attracted a higher caliber of recruit, Yori said, and NU’s 2014 class — yet unsigned and potentially growing — is ranked by one service in the top 20, she said. One commit — Wamego, Kan., forward Kaylee Page — is a five-star prospect, according to Collegiate Girls basketball report.
A new arena “gets fans excited,” Yori said. Then, in a return to her usual form, she mentioned new arenas can also “get coaches fired.”
“Hopefully it does the first and not the second,” Yori said.
The latter doesn’t appear likely when Yori — 94-38 in her past four years — returns one of her most experienced teams. It comes without Moore — a four-year starter and vocal leader who set school records for career assists and wins — but it does come with Hooper, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten forward, forward and Seward native Emily Cady, Hailie Sample and Rachel Theriot. All started at least 28 games last year and played big roles in NU finishing 25-9.
“Our top four kids who are returning as starters, they’re all playing at a really good level right now,” Yori said.
They’re relatively healthy, too. Only Theriot, who had offseason surgery on her left foot, has had to be monitored closely in practice, and Theriot said Monday she’s playing with far less pain than she did last year.
Yori wants more consistency from junior guards T’eara Laudermill and Brandi Jeffrey, one of whom may start opposite Theriot. Freshman guard and Seward native Hannah Tvrdy, Yori said, has shown in early workouts some of the court-sense skills Moore used to have.
“We have really great competition for guard play,” Yori said.
Other notes from Yori’s press conference:
Ľ Freshman forward Allie Havers missed a few practices with a strained Achilles, but she’s otherwise been impressive, Hooper and Yori said. Hooper said Havers — 6-foot-5 and lanky — has picked up concepts in eight practices that take other players two years to understand. Yori agreed.
“She can block shots and she can score, as thin as she is,” Yori said. “And she can score in a variety of ways, which is exciting. Pretty good feet for her size. She’s got really good hands. She can catch, she can finish. She makes a lot of reasonably good catches in practice and makes it look easy.”
The freshman class as a whole, Hooper said, “took to us like peanut butter and jelly.” Guard Esther Ramacieri joins Tvrdy and Havers as newcomers.
Ľ With just 11 players on the roster, Yori said she’ll have to be smart about how and when she gets her top players rest in practice and during the season. NU uses male practice players when roster numbers are small. Yori said she’s not actively seeking walk-ons, but “kids are always open to try out for us.”
Women’s teams are allowed 15 scholarship players. Yori rarely carries that many. But with Hooper as the only senior and Nebraska looking at signing five players in its 2014 recruiting class, the Huskers could hit that limit next season.
NU has four known commits — Page, four-star point guard Natalie Romeo, off-guard Jasmine Cincore and forward Darrien Washington — and Yori said in her press conference that Nebraska is “still working on another kid.” The Huskers recently had four-star Okanogan (Wash.) guard Chandler Smith on campus for a visit.