LINCOLN — One player was sick. Another got dinged early in the game. And Nebraska women's basketball coach Connie Yori didn't like how her team responded to adversity in a 70-57 loss to Michigan State.
So, not long after, Yori told the team about a player — arguably the best in Husker history — and all the adversity she'd overcome. Homesickness. Her dad undergoing cancer treatments. A severe ankle injury. But the example of toughness Yori liked so much about former Husker Kelsey Griffin was how the Eagle River, Alaska, native handled one season in constant pain.
“Kelsey took 30 charges the year she had broken ribs,” Yori said. “That's unbelievable.”
So, too, was the run Griffin and her teammates took Nebraska fans on in 2010, when the Huskers won a school-record 32 games and Griffin won All-America honors.
The season changed the entire profile of Nebraska women's basketball. It altered Griffin's course away from an immediate career in medicine toward pro hoops. And it helped lead to Wednesday, when Nebraska will retire Griffin's No. 23 jersey at Pinnacle Bank Arena before the Huskers' game with Michigan. The ceremony is set for 6:30 p.m. while tipoff is scheduled for 7.
“It's really hard to put into words what this means to me,” Griffin said at a press conference Tuesday. Of course, she easily did, as she often had a way with words at Nebraska, when Griffin was the go-to quote for local and national reporters, the first media star in the program's history.
“I'm hoping when the jersey's up there, everyone knows who was a part of bringing it up there,” she said. “The fact that I got to do it with so many amazing people is what's so special to me.”
Yori said she pushed for the honor, and not just because of the numbers Griffin's piled up on the court — she's currently NU's No. 2 career rebounder and No. 3 career scorer — but how she did it. Full effort. Few complaints — even if Griffin had good reason to buckle under the weight of injuries and a family illness.
“When you talk about young people overcoming adversity, she's such a role model for that,” Yori said. “She's rare. What doesn't she do well? ... Kelsey's a once-in-a-lifetime player. I've coached a lot of good players, but she's the best. There's no doubt she deserves to have her jersey hanging from the rafters.”
The 6-foot-2 forward played five years in Lincoln, sitting out the fourth season with the ankle injury. That proved to be a good break — for Griffin and Nebraska — when she returned for the 2009-10 season. With six seniors — some of whom will be on hand Wednesday — NU won the Big 12 title and its first 30 games. Crowds swelled at the Devaney Center. The Huskers were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and qualified for their first Sweet 16.
Husker women's hoops became a happening — with Griffin and her fellow seniors as the nucleus.
“Different personalities from different parts of the country,” Yori said of that senior class. “Different backgrounds. Small town, big city, Alaska, Phoenix, you name it, we had it in that class. Local players. So it was a pretty cool group of kids who were very different but found a way to really care about each other and like each other.”
Griffin said she's long felt the tension between heading to medical school and playing pro basketball. She felt it even at Nebraska. But the camaraderie she enjoyed her senior year convinced her to play in the WNBA. She was drafted in 2010 with the third overall pick and traded to the Connecticut Sun, where the Sun coach, former Omaha Racers General Manager/coach Mike Thibault, immediately dislodged her from the blocks to play her at small forward.
Through three years, Griffin didn't see much time. She averaged just 12 minutes per game in 2012. The Sun hired a new coach, Basketball Hall of Famer Anne Donovan, who put Griffin back at the power forward, or “4” position in 2013. Griffin started every game, averaging 8.7 points and five rebounds per game. She's now featured on the home page of the Sun's official website.
In the WNBA's offseason, Griffin plays in Australia for the Bendigo Spirit alongside former Husker center Chelsea Aubry. Griffin played in a Spirit game Sunday, then took four flights over 28 hours to reach Lincoln. She saw the sunrise twice. A small price of travel adversity for a lifetime achievement award. Karen Jennings and Maurtice Ivy are the only other Husker women to have their jerseys retired.
“I'm really in the happiest time of my life now,” Griffin said. “To have this honor on top of it, I couldn't ask for it to be any better timing.”