No. 5 Wolfpack opens NCAA tourney versus BYU
Nebraska came all the way to Los Angeles, and what the Cornhuskers really want is to go home.
First, though, they'll need to get two wins to return to their home arena in Lincoln, which will host an NCAA women's regional next weekend.
Led by Big Ten player of the year Jordan Hooper, the fourth-seeded Cornhuskers (25-6) face No. 13 seed Fresno State (22-10) in the first round Saturday at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. In the other game, fifth-seeded North Carolina State (25-7) plays 12th-seeded BYU (26-6).
Nebraska (25-6) has won 12 of its last 13 games, including four victories over Top 25 opponents and its first Big Ten tournament title. The Huskers haven't played in nearly two weeks.
The Bulldogs (22-10) are on a streak of their own, winning eight in a row, including the Mountain West tournament title for the second straight year.
Here are five things to watch for in Saturday's games:
DOING IT ALL: Jennifer Hamson of BYU does just about everything for her team. The 6-foot-7 senior tops the Cougars in scoring (18.3), rebounding (11.3) and blocked shots (128), a category in which she's second in the nation. "Growing up, I didn't like basketball at all. I kind of hated it," she said. Hamson averages 72 percent from the free throw line. She was the West Coast Conference's player and defensive player of the year. "They can put four people around her that can shoot the 3 very well," North Carolina State coach Wes Moore said.
HEADING HOME: Nebraska guard Tear'a Laudermill is back home in front of family and friends. The junior from Riverside, Calif., said it gives her a little extra spark seeing familiar faces in the stands. North Carolina State forward Kody Burke of nearby Northridge is expecting 30-35 family and friends to watch her. Her mother hasn't seen Burke play in person since high school. "It definitely inspires me to play my best," Burke said. "We're going to shock the world."
BULLDOGS' O-FER: Fresno State is in the NCAA tourney for the seventh straight year. The Bulldogs have yet to win a game. Two busloads of supporters will be making the trip to L.A. to see if the team can end its skid. Senior Taylor Thompson isn't just happy to be in the tourney for the fourth time. "I don't think that's good enough for us anymore," she said. "We definitely want this win." Thompson, Mountain West co-defensive player of the year and MVP of the league tourney, and senior Bree Farley are the team's leading scorers, accounting for 40 percent of the Bulldogs' offense this season. Thompson averages 14.3 points, while Farley is close behind with 13.8. "We're so hungry for a win," Farley said. "We believe that we can do it." Alex Sheedy, who like Farley is one of three Australians on the team, averages 13 points off the bench.
TAKING AIM: North Carolina State center Markeisha Gatling isn't missing much this season. She's shooting 68 percent from the field, tops in the NCAA since December. That's the best shooting percentage in school history, and a breakthrough for the 6-5 senior. She's set nearly all of her career-best marks this season, averaging 17.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Wolfpack, who are in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2010. Gatling said she's recovered from a knee injury and is ready to take on BYU's Hamson in the paint. "It's going to be interesting who wins the battle," BYU coach Jeff Judkins said. "I don't think it will decide the game, but it will make a difference."
HOOPING IT UP: Hooper leads Nebraska with averages of 20.3 points and 9.2 rebounds. She's the most prolific long-range shooter among active forwards or centers in Division I, owning the school record with 289 career 3-pointers. "We just really want to stay alive so that we can keep her around," Huskers forward Hailie Sample said.