If you can send 4,000 middle-schoolers home happy, you've had a pretty good day.
The youngsters, who attended a pregame pep rally before the Nebraska women's basketball team's 77-49 blowout of UCLA, left Pinnacle Bank Arena smiling Friday, and it wasn't just because they were hopped up on candy, soda and pizza.
The 17th-ranked Huskers looked impressive in their season debut.
“I wasn't really expecting it to be that big of a blowout, but I was expecting us to go out and do well today since our last game (an exhibition victory against Nebraska-Kearney) wasn't our greatest,” Nebraska senior Jordan Hooper said. “I was expecting more from everybody.”
The numbers were a landslide for the home team in the arena’s regular-season debut, including a record crowd of 9,750 for an NU women's nonconference game. Hooper led NU with 27 points and 11 rebounds, connecting on 9 of 14 shots from the field. Freshman Allie Havers scored all 14 of her points in the second half, and junior Emily Cady contributed 12 points. Sophomore Rachel Theriot, replacing four-year starter Lindsey Moore at point guard, dished out a career-high nine assists.
"We understand UCLA was not at full capacity (because of injuries),” Husker coach Connie Yori said. “Obviously, they were undermanned, and we caught a break from that standpoint. But we also had to execute and do some things right in order to win by the margin we did. We shared the ball and we rebounded the ball. We played some pretty good basketball overall.”
UCLA, ranked No. 25 in the USA Today preseason poll, played just six players and couldn’t keep up with the Huskers' torrid pace.
“A couple of possessions in, you could tell we were more fresh,” Hooper said. “We had more bodies coming in, and they just didn’t have that today.”
Nebraska led 19-13 midway through the first half when Hooper stared down her defender and hit a long three-pointer. She did it again on Nebraska’s next possession. Moments later, Brandi Jeffery took the ball coast-to-coast for a layup. Then she did it again. Jeffery, who finished with nine points and four assists, scored on a backdoor layup off an assist from Cady, then returned the favor with a pass to Cady, and the Husker lead was 33-13. NU was ahead 40-20 at halftime.
“Some of it was UCLA getting tired,” Yori said. “But we got defensive rebounds, and that leads to transition baskets. We did a good job of attacking and Brandi had a good section in that run. I thought our defensive rebounding led to our ability to run.”
Hooper had 19 points in the first 20 minutes on a variety of open looks off set plays.
“One of our players made the observation that (Hooper) doesn’t have to create her own shots,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “Nebraska has such great execution and unselfishness that she gets easier shots. I think we contributed to her having some open looks by losing some focus, but all the credit to Nebraska, to the way they play their roles, share the ball and play with focus and intensity.”
UCLA got as close as 15 points early in the second half on three-pointers from Nirra Fields and Dominique Williams, but never really threatened to make a serious run. With seven minutes left, Theriot beat the shot clock with a jumper, then grabbed a steal and spun a no-look pass to Cady for an easy layup and a 61-36 lead.
Getting that first game in the new arena out of the way was a relief to Yori.
“First of all, I want to thank the administration for making today happen,” Yori said. “A noon game on a Friday, who would think there would be nearly 10,000 fans here? The middle-school kids were great, our regular fans were great. What a great way to open up the arena. I was just thankful we played reasonably well. We did not want to come out and lay an egg, and we didn’t.”
The Huskers host Alabama on Monday.