Three Huskers took to stopping Minnesota guard Mara Braun on the final possession.
The freshman Gopher guard had 28 points going into the final 10 seconds of a game tied at 92. Jay Shelley was the primary defender as the ball was inbounded, allowing some space for her to drive to the right elbow. It was there that Alexis Markowski guarded the path to the rim, and Sam Haiby came over from the corner to help as well. Head coach Amy Williams believed that Braun would shoot it.
Instead, Braun passed it out to Isabelle Gradwell, the fifth-year guard waiting open in the corner that Haiby moved away from. The Husker guard recovered well enough for a decent contest on the sub-30 percent 3-point shooter, but it didn’t matter. The shot went in, giving Minnesota a lead with a 1.1 seconds remaining. Shelley’s heave from beyond halfcourt fell short, sealing a crushing Husker loss on the road.
That final possession was in line with how most of the game went for Nebraska. A team which had found success through having one of the best defenses in the Big Ten gave up 95 points to an opponent near the bottom of the conference standings, putting its NCAA Tournament hopes in severe danger.
“We probably didn’t need to sneak off of Gradwell on the ball side as much as we did,” Williams said on her postgame radio show. “But it’s, you know, the way that it happened and we could point to a lot of other possessions that were just as important.”
Both Nebraska and Minnesota entered the contest with offenses that ranked in the bottom five of the Big Ten. The Huskers were averaging 69.6 points in conference play, while the Gophers averaged 66.6. Minnesota was held to 56 points or less in three games on its recent six-game losing streak, but put up 57 in the second half alone on Wednesday.
Nebraska actually outscored its opponents after halftime, putting up 61 points between the third and fourth quarters, but its defensive struggles began before that. A pedestrian opening period ended with the Huskers up 15-14 before Minnesota’s offense came to life.
The Gophers went on a 16-3 run in the second quarter to open up a 12-point advantage, going into halftime still leading by seven. Braun and forward Alanna Micheaux had 10 points each at the break, while Isabelle Bourne had 15 of Nebraska’s first 31 points.
The Huskers more than doubled their total in the third quarter. They made just two threes in the first half, but Shelley and Markowski each drained one from deep early in the third quarter to match it. Another 3-pointer from Maddie Krull put them up three, but their lead couldn’t be maintained. A third-quarter featuring 25 combined free throws ended with Minnesota keeping a three-point advantage, even as the Huskers scored 33 points in the period.
Shelley accounted for 10 of those points, and kept that momentum going into the final quarter. After Minnesota opened the fourth by going up five points, Shelley tied it in a single possession — with some help. The junior guard hit an and-one layup, making the free throw. During the process of that make, Bourne took a hit from Micheaux that was called a foul and upgraded to a technical. Shelley went back to the line and made two more free throws to tie.
The extra possession ended in points too, as Markowski got fouled and gave Nebraska five free-throw makes on a single offensive trip. The Huskers continued to get to the line on the other end, as Haiby drew a foul on the defensive rebound that put her team in the bonus with eight minutes remaining and allowed her to extend the lead to four.
Minnesota responded with a 7-0 run to get back in front, and from there the lead changed nine times in a span of just over three minutes. In that stretch, just two of 13 possessions went without points, both by Nebraska. As the dust appeared to be settling, the Gophers went on a 10-2 run to take a six-point lead with 2:09 remaining.
Shelley, now with 30 points, wasn’t done. She hit a three off of a Husker steal to make it a three-point game and record a career-high 33 points. Braun missed one of two free-throw attempts on the other end. Shelley came back and missed a 3-point try, but the rebound bounced to Haiby. She dished it out to the game’s top scorer at the top of the key, and Shelley hit the three this time, plus a foul. The free throw went in, giving the guard 37 points as she tied the game.
Gradwell got the first of two chances at a go-ahead shot on Minnesota’s penultimate possession. A mostly stifled Gopher effort ended in a miss from her with 16 seconds left. It looked to be Shelley’s turn for a potential winner, but Haiby was fouled away from the ball and went to the line. She missed both shots, allowing Minnesota to get a final possession where any make would give it its third conference win of the year. With two Minnesota guards fouled out, Gradwell delivered in relief.
“When it boils down to it, we could not get a stop in the second half, we fouled way too much and put them to the free throw line and didn’t capitalize when we really needed to,” Williams said.
The Huskers came into the game on the tournament bubble, and this may have significantly worsened their chances. The biggest chance they have at significantly improving their résumé will come Saturday at home against No. 7 Iowa.
“We’re just gonna have to find a way to lean into each other and bounce back and get ready to do something special and come together,” Williams said. “We know that we can compete with the best teams in our league and we can get beat by anybody in the league, and that’s just the way this conference is. So we’ve got to just find a way to keep fighting and just overcome.”