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Gritty coach, players inspire Nebraska's turnaround

Posted: Friday February 16, 2007 6:09PM; Updated: Friday February 16, 2007 6:13PM
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Since taking over in 2002, Connie Yori has steadily built Nebraska into a Big 12 contender.
Since taking over in 2002, Connie Yori has steadily built Nebraska into a Big 12 contender.
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Connie Yori expected to turn things around when she took over at Nebraska. But even she is a bit surprised by just how big the turnaround has been -- and how quickly it has come.

After all, when she began the rebuilding process in June 2002, Yori began with just five scholarship players. "We had kids who were willing do work, we just didn't have enough of them," Yori said. "We didn't have depth in any area."

The Huskers do now. Nearly every player is averaging at least 10 minutes a game and no one is averaging more than 28. Nebraska has a strong presence inside, anchored by Kelsey Griffin, and balance from the perimeter, where Kiera Hardy has shined throughout her career.

Hardy, who helped her high school team improve from 4-21 to a state quarterfinalist, also played a major part in Nebraska's turnaround. In her first season, Hardy and the Huskers posted one of the biggest improvements in college basketball. The Huskers won 18 that year, 10 more than the previous season.

As a sophomore, Hardy was the Big 12's second-leading scorer and a first-team all-conference selection. She's now the program's career leader in three-pointers.

"Now, she's getting that recognition on a national scale, and she deserves it. She's like no other player I've ever coached," Yori said. "I've given her a bigger, brighter green light than I've ever given anybody. But she can also do things I've never had anybody else be able to do. She's a great player. She's the basis of our program."

Now, that program is competing for a conference title. At 21-5, Nebraska is No. 19 in the nation and tied for first place in the Big 12. And most importantly, the Huskers appear headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

"I would say that in some ways, we're ahead of schedule," Yori said. "I thought it could be possible at this stage, but realistically, I didn't think it was. I knew we had a lot of work to do, and in a league like ours, it's hard to make giant steps quickly."

Not only have the Huskers done it pretty quickly, they've also done it relatively quietly. That's because in the past couple of years, it's been the South Division that has garnered so much of the recognition in the Big 12, and rightly so. Look at all the South teams have accomplished in the past few years. Baylor won a national championship. Texas hauled in several top 10 recruiting classes in a row. Oklahoma rejoined the elite programs at the top of the rankings. And Gary Blair built Texas A&M into a national contender.

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