Six weeks ago, the Kansas women’s basketball team boarded a bus in Manhattan, Kan., and headed straight to a hospital in Lawrence.
A spot in the NCAA Tournament, much less a run to the Sweet 16, wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Leading scorer Carolyn Davis had just blown out her knee in a loss at Kansas State, and the team went to comfort Davis as a season that started amid such promise appeared destined for a sour finish.
Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson reminded her team of that bus ride on Saturday after the Jayhawks lost 84-73 to Tennessee in a NCAA regional semifinal.
The Jayhawks, playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2000, threw a scare into Tennessee, storming to a 14-point lead with 8 minutes to play in the first half. It looked like KU might have a chance to reach the Elite Eight for the first time before the taller and more experienced Volunteers, who got 41 points from their bench, staged their biggest comeback of the year and won for the first time in seven games in which they trailed at halftime.
As the 11th-seeded Jayhawks, one of the last four teams selected for the NCAA Tournament, reflected on their performance against the second-seeded Volunteers, they remembered what they pledged to each other on that bus ride on Feb. 12.
“What we talked about that night was not letting what you don’t have keep you from using what you do have,” Henrickson said. “We recognized how much we lost, but we had to really identify what we hadn’t lost.
“We just went around in a circle and asked everybody for a little bit more. I know it seems crazy to ask Angel Goodrich to have to do more, but we did, and she gave us more. Aishah (Sutherland) gave us more. They all gave us more. We said the goals aren’t going to change, we will find a way, we will figure this out.”
Kansas, 17-6 at the time of Davis’ injury, didn’t figure it out right away. They lost their next two, including a stunning 70-65 home loss to Missouri, which was 0-12 in the Big 12 at the time.
“I don’t know that I’ve been in a locker room more devastated just absolute devastation,” Henrickson recalled. “Then we bounce back You can’t do it if you have kids pointing fingers at everybody and wanting to feel sorry for themselves.”
Goodrich, Sutherland and freshman forward Chelsea Gardner were most responsible for the memorable finish by Kansas, 21-13.
“When Carolyn got hurt, it was really devastating to see her go down,” Goodrich said. “We tried to stay positive, and we knew we had a season left. We didn’t want that to stop us. We were still hungry to try to make the tournament.”
Goodrich, a 5-foot-4 junior guard, helped the Jayhawks snatch that precious at-large bid with late-season road wins at Texas Tech and at Oklahoma and carried the team in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points in a win over Nebraska, 27 against Delaware and 23 against Tennessee while playing 119 of 120 minutes.
Sutherland, a 6-1 senior, became the go-to player inside after Davis injury and averaged 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds in her last six games, including 19 points, eight rebounds against Tennessee.
And Gardner, a 6-3 freshman thrust into Davis’ spot in the starting lineup, averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds in her last four games, including double-doubles in NCAA Tournament games against Nebraska (15 points, 16 rebounds) and Tennessee (14-10).
Gardner provided the early spark Saturday for Kansas, playing in just its third Sweet 16 in program history. She scored four of the Jayhawks’ first five baskets as they jumped to a quick 8-2 lead and let the Volunteers know this would not be a cakewalk.
“The first couple minutes we came out with a lot of energy on defense and offense,” Gardner said. “We came out with a good start, but in the second half, we let them have a lot of open threes, and they just made threes back-to-back.”
Tennessee sophomore guard Meighan Simmons keyed a 14-3 run for the Volunteers that got Tennessee back in the game, hitting some deep threes that got her team to within 35-30 at halftime.
The taller Volunteers controlled the backboards in the second half and forged ahead when forward Vicki Baugh broke a 44-44 tie with a free throw with 13:33 to play. She missed the next one, but Glory Johnson rebounded and was fouled by Gardner. Johnson made the two free throws, Ariel Massengale, another bench player, hit a jump shot, and Tennessee was on its way to the Elite Eight, where it will play top-seeded Baylor on Monday night.
A young Jayhawks team returned home eager to build on their first NCAA Tournament experience after four straight WNIT appearances. Especially with Davis coming back, too.
“We’re excited for next year,” Goodrich said. “We’re losing someone really valuable (Sutherland), but we’re ready, and we can’t wait.”