The jolt from the norm was so shocking, Kansas University senior forward Aishah Sutherland was having a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
After three straight years of knowing nothing but the WNIT in terms of postseason success, advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament can have that effect.
“When I was in the locker room, I told my teammates to pinch me, because I thought I was dreaming,” Sutherland said of the minutes following the KU women’s basketball team’s 70-64 second-round victory over Delaware on Tuesday in Little Rock, Ark.
The entire experience — from getting invited to the Big Dance, advancing out of the first round, to winning a second time — marked new heights for the Jayhawks under eighth-year coach Bonnie Henrickson, who had not coached KU to an NCAA berth prior to this season. She said being a part of March Madness, which her Virginia Tech teams experienced five times during Henrickson’s eight years in Blacksburg, Va., before coming to KU, is what college basketball is all about.
“I’m spoiled. I’ve been able to feel this before,” Henrickson said, “and you just want for them to.”
Seeing Sutherland, juniors Angel Goodrich and Monica Engelman, sophomores CeCe Harper and Tania Jackson and freshmen Natalie Knight, Chelsea Gardner, Bunny Williams and Asia Boyd contribute to upset victories as a No. 11 seed in the first two rounds at Jack Stephens Center made the coach proud.
“It’s fun to watch them,” she said. “That’s the best part, is just to watch them. Just pure joy.”
The ride for Kansas (21-12) has been electrifying, considering what the team has gone through. One of the Jayhawks’ top perimeter players, sophomore guard Keena Mays, unexpectedly transferred (eventually deciding on SMU) on Dec. 9, 2011. Then, in the heart of Big 12 play, junior forward Carolyn Davis, KU’s leading scorer, suffered a season-ending ACL tear on Feb. 12 at Kansas State. With Davis out, Kansas finished 2-6 down the stretch.
Henrickson said her team had to find ways to win and prove to the NCAA selection committee KU deserved to make it to the tournament without its captain, Davis. Apparently, wins at Texas Tech and Oklahoma did the trick.
“Angel has carried us,” Henrickson said of KU’s junior point guard, who played all 40 minutes and scored 27 points Tuesday night against Delaware. “Aishah’s been really, really good, too.”
Sutherland, who scored 12 points and led Kansas with 11 rebounds in the second-round victory, said the team adjusted to playing without Davis and found success in sharing the ball.
“Our team plays together really well,” Sutherland said, “and if one person doesn’t have a shot, we move it on to the next.”
It was that kind of movement against Delaware in the second half that extended the season for Kansas. KU took control when starting guards Harper, a sophomore, and Knight, a freshman, became more involved in the offense.
Henrickson admitted she sometimes has to encourage both of them to be more aggressive with their shot attempts. The coach had to remind Knight near the end of the first half Tuesday that she hadn’t taken a shot. By halftime, Knight and Harper had combined to go 0-for-4.
The second half was a different story. Harper finished with six points, and Knight scored all of her points during a personal 8-0 run in a two-minute stretch, draining two threes in the process.
Clicking at the right time, Kansas is now set to face national powerhouse Tennessee (26-8) at 11:04 a.m. Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena, in Des Moines, Iowa.
And Sutherland can keep wondering if she is still dreaming.
“I’m very excited for my senior year to go this well,” she said. “I’m excited for me and my teammates.”