The photo hangs on the far wall of Bonnie Henrickson’s office, an oversized reminder of what Kansas women’s basketball can be. The image is from April 4, 2009, the day Kansas played host to South Florida in the WNIT championship game.
The Jayhawks would lose that day, and it was just the WNIT, another year without NCAA Tournament basketball. But sitting behind her desk on Wednesday afternoon, Henrickson wanted to take a moment and point out the crowd. Allen Fieldhouse was packed, cheerleaders on the baseline, fans on their feet, the old building rocking for a program that has had few memorable days in the last decade.
“What better place,” said Henrickson, who’s in her eighth year at Kansas. “The most basketball crazy place I’ve ever been in my life.”
These days, Henrickson can talk with a little bit more hope, a little bit more optimism. On Tuesday night in Little Rock, Ark., her No. 11-seeded Kansas squad pulled off its second upset of the NCAA Tournament, outplaying No. 3 seed Delaware and All-American Elena Delle Donne in a 70-64 victory. It was a night of pure joy and release, the Kansas women advancing to their first Sweet 16 since 1998.
A program that had suffered through four devastating knee injuries since 2009 was now trending on Twitter and splashing on the front page of national websites. A coach that had been hired in 2004 to rebuild a once-proud tradition finally had her breakthrough moment. And a school with a blue-blood men’s program — a brand that seems to lord over every square foot in Lawrence — now had two teams in the Sweet 16.
“It’s great,” said KU forward Aishah Sutherland, a senior finally playing in her first NCAA Tournament. “All the KU men’s players texted me. It’s shout-outs on Twitter. We’re both in it.”
The Jayhawks, playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2000, will now prepare to face No. 2 seed Tennessee in a regional semifinal in Des Moines. But the story of this team begins nearly three and a half years ago, with the first major knee injury.
Angel Goodrich was just two days into her college career when the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee gave out. Goodrich was one of Henrickson’s most-prized recruits, a highly-rated point guard from Tahlequah, Okla. And she would miss her entire freshman season.
The Jayhawks would nearly win the WNIT anyway, with Danielle McCray leading the way. Goodrich would return in the fall of 2009, and Kansas was picked to finish second in a loaded Big 12. Instead, Goodrich would tear the ACL in her right knee in early January. And just a few weeks later, the Jayhawks would lose McCray to the same horrific knee injury.
“We feel like you’re about to turn the corner here, and then boom,” said Henrickson, who arrived at Kansas from Virginia Tech in 2004. “It happens to you twice. You’re never supposed to ask why, but.…”
This season, the Jayhawks returned a talented core of players. Henrickson expected Goodrich, now a junior, to lead from the point guard spot. And Sutherland and junior Carolyn Davis would add some size and scoring at the forward positions.
Kansas began the season 17-6 and looked like a safe bet to finally make the NCAA Tournament. And then … boom. Davis, the team’s leading scorer, went down with a gruesome knee injury in a loss against Kansas State on Feb. 12. Another torn ACL.
“It felt like the season was gonna go downwards,” Sutherland said. “But our team just came together. As a senior, and with Angel being here four years, we wanted something more.”
After a few stumbles, Kansas picked up a pivotal victory at Oklahoma in the final regular-season game. Henrickson believes the victory proved to the NCAA selection committee that the Jayhawks could win without Davis, and Kansas snuck into the field as a No. 11 seed.
Next came victories over No. 6 Nebraska and No. 3 Delaware in Little Rock, with Goodrich scoring 27 points on Tuesday night to secure the trip to the Sweet 16. And then came the texts from Bill Self and Danny Manning, arriving in Henrickson’s phone late on Tuesday night.
“We’re as excited for them as they are for us,” Henrickson said.
Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger says this is a reflection of what KU can be. For years, the school’s non-revenue programs have struggled to carve out a niche on a campus dominated by men’s basketball. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Don’t sit back and let men’s basketball carry the load,” Zenger said Wednesday, echoing a message he’s delivered to the school’s other programs.
On Friday night, Zenger plans to be in St. Louis for the men’s Sweet 16 game against North Carolina State. On Saturday morning, he’ll wake up early and fly to Des Moines for the women’s matchup with Tennessee.
But on Wednesday afternoon, back in Lawrence, a supply of KU women’s Sweet 16 T-shirts had just arrived behind the counter of Jock’s Nitch Sportings Goods on Mass Street. Two workers sorted the shirts, waiting to hang them next to the men’s basketball shirts with the same message.
Henrickson’s eight-year odyssey at Kansas had been filled with painful injuries, crushing lows, and more than a few doubters. Now the shirts told the story: “How Sweet It Is.”
“I never thought it would happen overnight, especially in this league,” Henrickson said. “But did I want it to happen overnight? Absolutely. I like to say I’m a realist, but I would have liked for it to happen that first year.
“It’s been a process, and I’m just excited we have the opportunity we have right now.”