Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Women's Basketball

Depth, Youth Fueling Upset-Minded Huskers with No. 4 Maryland on Tap

January 7, 2019
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After practice Monday, after the media interviews with players and head coach Amy Williams had wrapped up, there was senior forward Maddie Simon on the court inside Pinnacle Bank Arena working with freshman forward Ashtyn Veerbeek. Veerbeek was working on jump hooks. Simon was doing the same and coaching up the younger Veerbeek.

Elsewhere, starting point guard Hannah Whitish has ceded minutes, shots and spotlight in her junior season to freshman guard Sam Haiby. Whitish averaged 12.6 a game last year for the Huskers and entered the year a preseason All-Big Ten selection. But it’s been Haiby off the bench who has led the team in scoring and (10.7 a game) and grabbed headlines. Whitish hasn’t made a peep.

It’s part of the culture around the program. Nebraska has super freshmen, absolutely. Wing Leigha Brown has scored 19 and 20 in back-to-back games en route to earning the latest Big Ten Freshman of the Week award from the conference. Haiby hasn’t started a game yet looks like the future of the program. Veerbeek is leading the team in rebounding while playing behind sophomore center Kate Cain.

But they’re just three of Nebraska’s eight players averaging at least 7.8 points a night. The starting five features two juniors and a senior, all of whom are averaging exactly 8.6 points a night.

And they’re not talked about.

And they don’t care.

“I think it says what we’ve known from this group all through last season and into the beginning part of this season, this is an unselfish group that just doesn’t care who gets the credit, who gets the glory, who’s scoring points. They just want to win,” Williams said Monday when she met with the media. “I think that’s the best thing about the upperclassmen in our program, they’ve embraced our new players this year with everything and they’ve set the tone.

“We share the basketball, we take what minutes we get, we make the most of those minutes, we play as hard as we can for each other during those minutes and we don’t really care at the end of the game if you had 19 or if I had 19 or if she had 19 or whoever was our leading scorer just as long as we’re striving to be the very best team we can be.”

Brown learned of her Big Ten honor on Twitter hours before meeting with the media. Asked what that means to her, she said it’s nice but “I just want to come and contribute and do everything I can to benefit the team and win.” That’s Williams’ work showing through after just a couple months with the program.

Nebraska’s coaching staff knew Brown — who is averaging 16.7 points a game through the first three league games, the highest among Big Ten freshmen — could score. She was recruited to score. She had that reputation in high school. Defense was the thing that needed to come along. Williams has been pleased with the progress Brown has made in that regard.

“She’s been showing us a lot in practice,” Williams said. “She’s playing hard [on defense], playing in a defensive stance, really working hard to become a better defender while she is finding ways to produce.”

Then offensively, Brown is starting to settle in and finding ways to attack out of catch-and-shoot situations but also off the dribble. In her last five games, she’s taken 32 free throw attempts.

“That has sparked us in a lot of our games and a lot of areas where we’ve needed some scoring,” Williams said.

Brown said Nebraska’s depth has helped her too. “[The defense] can’t really just guard one person or focus on one person and I think that opens up things for not only me but everyone else,” she said. The Husker bench has outscored opponents in each of their 14 games this season, with 11 coming by double-digits. Williams has always used a deep bench, but the sheer production has meant more court time for everyone.

It also means fresher legs in the fourth quarter.

The Huskers have made a habit of coming back on teams in fourth quarters of late, the latest coming in a furious comeback attempt at No. 19 Iowa last Thursday. The Hawkeyes had a 12-point lead at the 4:36 mark of the fourth quarter that was slashed to four in about three minutes.

The natural conclusion is to say Nebraska is wearing teams down with short rotations out and taking advantage late. Williams doesn’t seem content with fourth-quarter pushes, though, because in order to be trailing late, you had to put yourself in that spot with a poor quarter early.

“We talk about how we need to strive to put four quarters together and 40 minutes and get as close to that as we possibly can,” Williams said. “Early the talk was, ‘Our second quarters are killing us and we can’t do anything in the second quarter.’ Now everybody wants to talk about ‘Man, your fourth quarters are [great].’

“Really, the only focus we’ve had the entire season is how can we get closer to playing 40 minutes of that type of execution and intensity that we’re seeing in fourth quarters here lately.”

That will become especially important Tuesday when fourth-ranked Maryland (13-1, 2-1) comes to Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Terps have never lost to the Huskers — 9-0 all-time — and swept the three meetings between the two teams last season.

Simon is 0-5 against the Terps in her career, with early losses by 39 and 44. Last year’s two-point loss on the road was the closest Nebraska has come to beating the Terps. Simon wants to finally get over the hump.

“I want to win against Maryland this year really bad,” she said.

Nebraska knows Ohio State (who NU beat by nine on the road on Dec. 31) just played the Terps close on the road, only losing by six. It also knows Rutgers just upset the Terps on the road. That gives plenty of confidence. Williams said there are things Rutgers did that Nebraska can try to copy (Rutgers won the rebounding battle 38-28 and crashed the offensive glass with reckless abandon), but there’s also confidence that what they do is good enough to win on its own.

The history also helps.

“Our kids know that Maryland handed us three losses last year,” Williams said. “There are some of our returning players who have that in their mind and would like to make amends for that.

“It’s a little bit unique in that we have 45 percent of our roster being new this year. There are a lot of new players that weren’t a part of any of those losses that are just trying to be the best version of themselves. I think that’s a really good, healthy balance to be able to have some of our returners help amp this up a little bit but also have those new players to keep it in perspective and say let’s just keep getting better.”

Given Maryland’s quality, the Huskers likely can’t rely on a late push to go for a win. Things might already be decided if there’s a dip in intensity in the earlier quarters. But then again, maybe the difference in this series could be the freshmen.

Rebounding was an issue last time, but Nebraska didn’t have Veerbeek then. Shot creation was another. But Brown and Haiby might fix that problem, too.

Cain was asked Monday what it is that has helped make Maryland so dominate since joining the Big Ten. She answered by simply saying they have a lot of weapons and a lot of different ways to attack teams, inside and out.

“But, so do we.”

 
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