Season In Review

April 5, 2012

Every team faces its share of obstacles and setbacks during a season that questions the teams’ determination. Oftentimes, how a squad responds to those road blocks defines who it is and what it is made of. Heading into the 2011-12 season, it seemed Kansas women’s basketball was poised to have a successful year. The right pieces were all in place until Preseason Naismith Watch List junior Carolyn Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final stretch of Big 12 Conference play. Many believed that the Jayhawks’ hopes would go down with her.

But instead of throwing in the towel, Kansas regrouped and came on even stronger down the stretch. This team was made of tenacity and downright stubbornness in refusing to give up. The Jayhawks bounced from a pair of troublesome losses at home to pick up two important road wins in its final two weeks to solidify its NCAA Tournament resume. When the selection show aired on March 12, KU was chosen to make its 12th NCAA postseason appearance and first in 12 seasons. The Jayhawks then surprised the hoops world with wins in the first and second rounds to advance to the team’s first NCAA Sweet 16 since 1998.

Kansas powered through the postseason behind junior Angel Goodrich. The 5-foot-4 point guard paced the Jayhawks with 23.3 points per game in three NCAA Tournament games, which ranked fifth among all players in the tournament. In addition to scoring, Goodrich’s remarkable court vision helped her lead the country with 7.4 assists per game during the 2011-12 season. Her 250 dimes on the year shattered KU’s 24-year-old single-season record and set a new Big 12 Conference mark. She also broke the Allen Fieldhouse single-game assists record, for both men and women, passing out 16 helpers versus Texas on Feb. 8. The Tahlequah, Okla., native was well-represented on postseason award lists garnering All-America Honorable Mention by both the WBCA and Associated Press as well as being named one of four finalists for the Nancy Lieberman award, given to the top Division I point guard in the country.

Despite her injury, Davis made enough of an impact to earn the respect of her opponents as she too was named All-America Honorable Mention by the WBCA and was also placed on the All-Big 12 First Team for the second-straight season. Before the ACL tear, the forward’s 59.8 field goal percentage was the fifth-best mark in the country.

The team’s underclassmen provided the ideal supporting cast. When the group was asked to take on a greater role towards the end of the season, each student-athlete agreed to the challenge and became an integral part of the Jayhawks’ overall success.

“If you want to be developed as a player, you have a responsibility on your part to come in and be a sponge and be silly putty, so to speak,” head coach Bonnie Henrickson said of the team’s newcomers. “I don’t know that I’ve been around a group of freshmen that has embraced this as much as these guys.”

Building a Postseason Resume
Kansas had yet to play a game but already the preseason awards were rolling in for junior Carolyn Davis. The Naismith, Wooden and Wade Trophy watch lists all included the 6-foot-3 post player and called her one of the top five centers in America. She was the focal point of the KU offense and, together with senior Aishah Sutherland and junior Angel Goodrich, was prepared to take the team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.

Non-conference season got underway with a win over Western Michigan on Nov. 13 and the team rolled from there. Kansas toughed it out for a 74-73 win in its first road test at Wake Forest during a seven-game win streak to start the season before a setback at Alabama temporarily paused KU’s momentum. After four more wins, the Jayhawks compiled an impressive 11-1 record heading into Big 12 Conference play.

On Jan. 4, Kansas traveled to Texas hoping to win its first league opener since 2006. Behind a then-career-high 22 points from Goodrich and a season-high output of 19 points from junior Monica Engelman, the Jayhawks earned a 72-67 win over No. 23 Texas in their first road win over a ranked foe in 12 years.

The team soon picked up two more road victories to improve to 15-2 on the season, its best start since 1993-94. The run was capped by a 65-60 win at Oklahoma State during which Sutherland had a double-double of 15 points and 22 rebounds. Her 22 boards were the most by Jayhawk since 1981. Soon KU even cracked the national polls coming in at No. 25 on the USA Today/ESPN poll released Jan. 30 for its first spot in the top 25 since 2009-10.

KU then fought through a tough stretch of schedule with four top-25 teams in five games. Despite the challenge, in which they upset No. 21 Texas Tech, nothing could have prepared the Jayhawks for the adversity that lay just ahead. Less than four minutes into the game at in-state rival Kansas State, Davis fell to the floor holding her knee. The team’s star forward would miss the remainder of the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and dislocated knee cap.

“What we talked about was, ‘Don’t let what you don’t have keep you from using what you do have,'” Henrickson said to her team in the hours following Davis’ injury. “We recognized what we lost, but we also had to really identify what we hadn’t lost, and I asked everyone to give a little more. I know it sounds crazy to ask Angel Goodrich to do more, but we did, and she did. We said the goals aren’t going to change: We will find a way; we will figure this out.”

With its leading scorer on the sideline, KU had to redesign its offense quickly as it was scheduled to play three games in the seven days ahead. Losses at Iowa State and to Missouri prompted many doubters and threatened the team’s postseason hopes. Despite the setbacks, the Jayhawks would not give up and let their season slip away like some believed. Instead, Kansas showed its resiliency first with a win at Texas Tech and then an even more important victory at Oklahoma in the regular-season finale. It gave the Jayhawks their most league victories away from home (five) in 15 years. The win over the Sooners was also KU’s first win in Norman since 1998 and helped the team earn a No. 6 seed at the Big 12 Championship, its highest seed since 2000.

The Jayhawks earned a first round bye in the conference tournament but lost to eventual tournament runner-up Texas A&M in the quarterfinals on March 8.

How Sweet It Is
At 19-12 overall, Kansas’ postseason hopes were questionable but head coach Bonnie Henrickson assembled her team for Selection Monday and on March 12, in front of a throng of administration, supporters and media, the Jayhawks were chosen as a No. 11 seed in the Des Moines regional and would face Nebraska in the first round in Little Rock, Ark.

“It matters for these players, it matters for recruiting, it matters for our fans,” said Henrickson of the impact the postseason berth had on the program. “There are a lot of positive things. It speaks to the character and the leadership of the kids in the program that we can bounce back from two really tough losses at home and from the Carolyn (Davis) situation. If you look at it, going to Texas Tech and winning and then going to Oklahoma and winning and playing that well helped. The best part of that day was that everybody made a play, and that should be how we got in. Everybody contributed and made a play.”

One of the last four teams in, KU now had to prove it belonged in the NCAA Tournament field. On the evening of March 18, the Jayhawks defeated No. 17 Nebraska, 57-49, with the help of a career night from freshman Chelsea Gardner. Gardner had been inserted to the starting lineup in place of Davis and after getting her feet wet through her first few starts, it seemed the DeSoto, Texas native had finally arrived. Going 6-for-8 from the field, Gardner racked up 15 points but even more impressive was her work on the boards. She pulled down 16 rebounds, tying the most by a Jayhawk in an NCAA Tournament game, for her first career double-double.

Kansas was not done yet, however. In the second round the Jayhawks upended heavily favored Delaware and standout Elena Delle Donne, 70-64, in a total team effort. Goodrich was phenomenal connecting on a career-high 12 field goals on her way to 27 points in handing the Blue Hens just their second loss of 2011-12.

It was clear that the Jayhawks were not the same team from November. They were playing at a completely different level, peaking at just the right time in the season. The win propelled KU to the Sweet 16 for just the third time in program history and first since 1998 as it prepared for perennial power and No. 2-seeded Tennessee in Des Moines.

On gameday, Kansas showed it belonged in the same echelon as the SEC powerhouse storming out to a 35-30 halftime lead and led by as many as 14 points in the first 20 minutes. KU fought until the very end, left every ounce of grit on the hardwood, but try as it might KU was unable to stop the Lady Vols’ second-half surge. UT turned hot from the field and took advantage from the free throw line while ending the Jayhawks’ postseason hopes with an 84-73 victory.

KU’s breakout year landed the team at No. 25 in the final USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ Poll, one of only three Big 12 schools on the list, to validate the many successes it achieved over the course of the season. With only one senior departing, the Jayhawks’ young squad is already shaped for a grand follow-up to its best postseason run in over a decade.