Griffin makes classy exit after loss

Kelsey Griffin had 15 points and 12 rebounds in the Cornhuskers' Sweet 16 loss Sunday. AP Photo/Ed Zurga

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- But for landing painfully on a teammate's foot during a pickup game about a year-and-a-half ago, Kelsey Griffin wouldn't have been in this place at this time. Who's to say how Nebraska might have done in 2008-09 with her playing? Likely, it would not have been the ride that 2009-10 was. And for that, she'll always be grateful.

It didn't end the way Griffin was hoping, of course, as top-seeded Nebraska was defeated by No. 4 seed Kentucky 76-67 on Sunday in the Sweet 16 and ended the season 32-2. The dream, after putting together such a great regular season, was the Final Four.

The setup seemed so good: Nebraska entered the postseason undefeated, with the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City and the hope of getting a No. 1 seed in the Kansas City Regional and early-round NCAA tournament games in Minneapolis.

In other words, the road to San Antonio looked like it could be geographically beneficial to the Huskers, with fans able to make the three-hour drive to KC and six-hour trek to Minneapolis to support the Big Red.

And it all happened just like that. Problem was, both visits to Kansas City ended in losses. First to Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, then to Kentucky in the regional semis. The thing is, in neither case did it appear Nebraska "blew" it. It never looked like the Huskers didn't compete hard. It was just that they played teams that figured out how to beat them -- and then did just that.

And for Griffin, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds, the sadness over the end of her college career was mixed with the realization that she and the Huskers had done just about all they could.

"The thing that hurt so much about losing this game isn't the game, it's the fact that I'm not going to get to go back and practice with these underclassmen and the rest of my seniors," Griffin said. "That said, I think we helped Nebraska, and I'm so excited to see what this team is going to do next year. They're bringing in some great freshmen. Everyone grew up a lot this year.

"Coach [Connie] Yori is a great coach; she's done great things with the program. It's been an honor playing for her. I'm really excited to see where Nebraska is going to go."

If they gave awards for classy exits, obviously Griffin would get that too, to go along with her Big 12 Player of the Year honor. It was a phenomenal season for Griffin, who seems likely to get State Farm All-America honors at the upcoming Final Four.

The career journey for Griffin doesn't need any exaggeration because the reality of it is so amazing. She came to Nebraska an under-recruited and little-seen player from Alaska, and was convinced in her first few weeks of practice that she wasn't any good. Then Yori started her, and she began to realize her coach had a very different assessment of her talent.

Her first three seasons, Griffin played through mononucleosis, other respiratory problems, a cracked rib and her father's battle with cancer. What else could go wrong for her as a senior?

She came down on teammate Cat Redmon's foot in August 2008 and severely injured her ankle. It required surgery, so she redshirted the season and the Huskers finished 15-16.

She spent her time encouraging her teammates and paying close attention to everything Yori did. So no one was more ready to lead a team than Griffin was this season. And in winning Nebraska's first Big 12 regular-season title and elevating the Huskers into the conversation about the best teams in the country, Griffin did much more than probably even she would have reasonably hoped for when she arrived in Lincoln.

"It's been a roller coaster, but I'm so thankful and grateful because it's made me into the person I am today," Griffin said. "This year has definitely helped me to fall back in love with basketball, and I can't thank my teammates enough."

Griffin, a 6-foot-2 forward, will find out soon where she goes from here; the WNBA draft is April 8.

"I am very excited to get the opportunity to learn at a new level," she said. "I've tried to continue to improve here, but to be going against the most elite players in the world -- I look forward to that.

"But at the same time, I don't think I'm ever going to find another team that feels quite like this team."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.