Sunny Smallwood enjoys her view from the Husker bench Sunday night.
By Randy York
All Husker fans who watched the Nebraska women’s basketball team reach its second NCAA Sweet 16 in four years Monday night on national TV should have tuned into Matt Coatney’s play-by-play and Jeff Griesch’s analysis. Why? You missed the heart and soul of Big Red women’s basketball. You missed the inside scoop, the genuine enthusiasm and the unparalleled insight you just can’t get on TV. The good news is you can still sing in today’s sunshine, thanks to the best sound bites from the Husker Sports Network, plus the highlights from an incredibly substantive postgame interview with Sunny Smallwood, Connie Yori’s associate head coach. Sunny went straight from a jubilant locker room to a courtside seat next to Coatney while Griesch climbed on his postgame Tilt-A-Whirl to accommodate the media.
Make no mistake. Smallwood enjoys the obscurity of being a lead recruiter without a head coaching title. She’s also the Huskers’ defensive coordinator, the position coach for the future WNBA first-round point guard she personally recruited and the fill-in for the 2010 National Coach of the Year and the 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Smallwood, who’s also responsible for all aspects of Nebraska’s individual player development workouts and plays a major role in scouting opponents, was an interim head coach at both Cal in the Pac-12 and Nebraska when Yori endured medical problems last season.
If you watch Nebraska women’s basketball during timeouts, you’ll see Smallwood as the first point of contact on the floor. She’s always planning, always coaching, always motivating. Filling in on a postgame radio interview so her boss, friend and eight-year colleague can meet the press NCAA style is a seamless experience for Sunny Smallwood. A Boise native, a firm believer in Yori’s ideals and a proven, dedicated and loyal assistant, Nebraska does not miss a beat with Smallwood holding the reins. It’s like having two head coaches on the same bench.
Tourney Time: When True Character Shows Up
“Sunny has a vast array of experience and is helping our program in all areas,” Yori said, and Monday night, Smallwood’s multi-faceted responsibilities never looked more crystal clear. “The one thing we’ve been talking about as a staff is how hungry, healthy and happy this team is,” Smallwood told Coatney on the postgame radio show. “It’s just fun to watch them come together. This is when your true character shows up … the kind of people that Connie Yori surrounds herself with, whether it’s players or staff. This is the time of year you love to see it just shine through everything.”
Lindsey Moore, the point guard Nebraska recruited from Washington, did it all. “I can’t say enough how the team followed her,” Smallwood said. “Lindsey is the kind of kid who’s always going to compete. If we have a dance contest, she wants to win. If there’s a contest to get to the mailbox first, she’s going to win. That’s just the type of competitor she is, and she’s always going to bring her team with her.”
Give equal amounts of credit to Jordan Hooper and Emily Cady for the way they fronted A&M’s post and read her like defensive backs read wide receivers. They saw where the ball was going and adjusted their angles accordingly. In this particular game, they mastered the ability to front a formidable force, watch where the ball was going and then waited for help coming from everyone wearing a Nebraska jersey. “I give our players credit for playing every single possession,” Smallwood said, adding that the Huskers watched where A&M wanted to explode next, not the scoreboard. “We played with poise. We were relaxed, confident and just hung in there.”
Even though Nebraska led No. 9-ranked Texas A&M from start to finish, Smallwood made a quick point that the Huskers had just beaten “a great, great basketball club” on its home floor, where the Aggies had won 110 of its previous 124 games. A&M won the national championship two years ago and had just swept three talented teams in the SEC Tournament and its first-round NCAA opponent. How did the Huskers stick it to a team on a roll? “I give so much credit to our team for being so focused,” Smallwood said. “They believed what the coaching staff took to them and committed to it as a group, which is everything.”
Huskers Tied Up Shoelaces, Used Mouth Guards
Smallwood says Yori is a masterful game-planner and the Huskers buy what she sells, no matter how grueling it might be. The X-factor for this game was a physical post player that was the SEC Tournament’s MVP. “We knew they were physical,” Smallwood said. “We talked all weekend about the fact that they were going to beat us up, and we were going to have to tie up our shoelaces, put in our mouth guards and be ready to get elbowed in the face while getting taken out with running screens. We went into the game knowing it was going to be a battle.”
Lost in the battle was sophomore forward Hailie Sample, who posted her first double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds. All four of her virtually uncontested layups came on feeds from Moore, including three in the game’s final five minutes. “I think Hailie figured out that when you have a great point guard, you can cut to the basket and we’re going to get you the ball,” Smallwood said.
Those close-in shots came a lot easier than getting into the Huskers’ locker room after one of the greatest upsets in Nebraska women’s basketball history. “Oh my gosh, there was a celebration all the way to the locker room,” Smallwood said. “But there was a code on the door and we couldn’t get it to open.” Once they got inside, “everybody was just going crazy. It was nuts. Everybody had something to say and after they said it, everyone would just cheer. It was so much fun and so gratifying to see a group that worked so hard all year long to experience something like that.”
Coatney Calls Win Over A&M His All-Time Favorite
Yes, it was one huge celebration – one that Coatney described as “maybe the biggest win in school history.” If nothing else, the voice of Nebraska women’s basketball said it ranked No. 1 on his all-time, 28-year list of Husker memories.
Since we’ve taken the time to tell the “Sunny side” of Nebraska’s second Sweet 16 appearance in history, perhaps the time is also right to acknowledge Barack Obama, our second-term president, who not only predicted Nebraska would be a Sweet 16 qualifier, but also make the NCAA Elite Eight. Yes, on his NCAA Tournament Bracket, announced well ahead of all opening tipoffs, Obama sees Nebraska beating Duke Sunday in Norfolk, Va., and then losing to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. He sees the Irish beating Connecticut again and then losing to Baylor in the national championship game.
Smallwood is not into the bracket prediction business, but she did have a footnote for Coatney’s last call on his postgame show. “I’ll tell you what,” Smallwood said. “We’re going to the Sweet 16, but one of the things we said in the locker room was ‘Don’t settle … don’t settle for the Sweet 16.’” Nebraska “must continue,” said Smallwood, who will do whatever it takes to help the Huskers rewrite the script carved in a 32-2 season that ended at this same juncture three memorable seasons ago with a freshman point guard carrying history on her shoulders.
Can One Shining Moment Replace Another One?
The Nebraska players’ excitement on the bench in Monday night’s waning moments will be etched in the memories of Husker players, coaches and fans for a long time. We can only imagine what kind of spirit would emerge from an upset win over No. 2 seed Duke and a sentimental journey to the Elite Eight.
The outcome will depend on the detailed preparation leading up to Nebraska’s second-ever appearance in the Sweet 16. With Smallwood’s fingerprints guaranteed to be all over that strategic plan, Husker fans can be assured of one thing – she will try to find every available angle that can create an edge and take Nebraska basketball where it has never been before.
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