Kansas women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson and her team enjoyed a breakthrough moment on Monday night.
The Jayhawks received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the first in Henrickson’s eight seasons and the first for the program since 2000.
Kansas (19-12) received the No. 11 seed in the Des Moines Region and will play former Big 12 foe Nebraska (24-8) on Sunday night in Little Rock, Ark. Tipoff is about 6:50 p.m. on ESPN2.
Kansas State is the No. 8 seed in the Kingston, R.I., Region. The Wildcats (19-13) will meet No. 9 Princeton (24-4) at 10:20 a.m. Saturday in Bridgeport, Conn., on ESPN2.
In all, seven Big 12 teams will participate in the tournament, headed by top-ranked and No. 1 seed Baylor and defending national champion Texas A&M.
The Jayhawks had played in the last four and five of the last six WNITs, so finally qualifying for the NCAA Tournament was huge.
“It matters,” Henrickson said. “It matters for these players, it matters for recruiting, it matters for our fans. I’m happy for our fans, too, and for everyone that watched on pins in needles like we did.”
Kansas had lost six of its last eight games after star forward Carolyn Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-February. But the two games Kansas won during that span, road games at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, plus what it did before Davis was injured was enough to get the Jayhawks in the field. Greg Christopher, chairman of the selection committee, said Kansas was one of the last four teams in.
“I was sweating,” Henrickson said of waiting to hear Kansas’ name to be called. “When we practiced (Sunday), I told the team, ‘The two teams we needed to win … Delaware and Wisconsin-Green Bay won.’ I was watching both of the scores on the computer as I was watching film. We felt like how well we played and how hard we played down the stretch and being in the best women’s basketball conference in the country would help us. That was a lot of fun.”
The bid probably meant the most to the lone senior on the team, forward Aishah Sutherland.
“When I saw Kansas, I didn’t even know who we were going to play,” Sutherland said. “I just saw ‘Kansas’ and sprinted toward my teammates. I was just so happy at the time. Then afterward, I was like, ‘Wait, who are we playing?’ ”
The Jayhawks know Nebraska well. Last year, in the Huskers’ final year in the Big 12, the teams split two games.
Kansas State, meanwhile, will play in the tournament for the ninth time under coach Deb Patterson and the second straight year in the East. Last year, K-State lost to Purdue in the first round in Storrs, Conn.
“I am always hopeful for a higher seed for Big 12 programs, but we are just happy to be dancing right now,” said Patterson, whose team was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 this season. “If you had told me at the beginning of the year that we would be competing in the NCAA Tournament, I probably would have laughed at you. It has been a great run and we are looking forward to competing hard through this NCAA Tournament.”
If the Wildcats beat Princeton — which comes into the NCAA Tournament riding a 17-game winning streak — they likely would meet top-seeded Connecticut, the NCAA champion in 2009-10. But Kansas State won’t be looking ahead.
“You have UConn out there and you understand the magnitude of those guys,” Patterson said, “but I think it is easy for us to say to our basketball team that a lot of people will see K-State on their bracket and say, ‘Thank goodness we have got K-State.’ It is the same approach probably for Princeton.
“You have got to understand that everybody that you line up against in this tournament is a great basketball team. It is the same thing for Princeton. I think it is an easier buy in for our basketball team, and the maturity that we have with our senior leadership. I think we will make sure that we are ready to compete.”