Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Women's Basketball

We'll Find Out Soon Enough, But These Huskers Might Be Special

January 5, 2020
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Amy Williams’ 2019 Huskers have the goods.

To beat a supernova team like Maryland? We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but Nebraska right now is a team with minimal flaws, strength in adaptability and lots of ways to hurt opponents.

One player leads the team in scoring one night and then takes three shots the next time out on the floor. No one complains about shot distribution. No one complains about minutes. No one is out hunting the spotlight. One of Nebraska’s most electric players this season comes off the bench and if she’s upset about it, she should be up for an Oscar.

Both Nebraska and Minnesota entered a Saturday showdown sitting at 11-2 on the season. Minnesota, in head coach Lindsay Whalen’s second season, was ranked. Nebraska, in Williams’ fourth, was not.

It’s time to start paying attention to this group of Huskers.

At 12-2, Nebraska is working on its best start to a season since the 2011-12 Huskers opened the year 15-1.

Nebraska has the third-best defense in the conference by opponent shooting, anchored by the league’s best rim protector in junior center Kate Cain, who might just be coming into her own as a basketball player right now.

Nebraska won’t blow anyone away offensively, but it has the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference and dishes out more helpers, as a team, than all but three other Big Ten teams. Six different women have led the team in scoring in a game this year, and no one has done it in back-to-back games. Sophomore guard Sam Haiby has a 28-point game to her name. Sophomore wing Leigha Brown, who has a team-leading 14.0 points-per-game scoring clip off the bench, has a 25-point game.

If the team has an Achilles heel, it’s still rebounding—Michigan State came back on the Huskers in part because of 22 offensive rebounds. Or it’s the fact Nebraska doesn’t really do any one thing extraordinarily well. But winning teams and winning programs do so because they do a bunch of important things really well. Nebraska does a bunch of important things really well. Passing, moving, talking, defending hard, playing smart, closing.

After going 4-10 in two-possession games last season, these Huskers are 3-1 in such games this season. Nebraska has won the fourth quarter this season by a combined 40 points.

Good teams don’t let their opponents blow their doors off on off-nights. Kinda like what Minnesota did Saturday; Nebraska controlled the game from the start of the second quarter on, but the Husker lead never ballooned past 15 points.

Good teams, however, also match runs for runs and keep their opponents down when playing from the front. Kinda like what the Huskers did Saturday. Minnesota made runs in the second and third quarters—strong pushes to make Nebraska uncomfortable—and both times the Huskers shut the door.

Nebraska can play a perimeter game with guards and wings spacing Cain in the center. While Haiby was lasering triples Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about all those days spent in the gym this summer, with sophomore forward Ashtyn Veerbeek closing hard to contest her shot at the 3-point line, where Haiby worked to become a better shooter. (She shot 31% from beyond the arc last season, and she’s at 37% now after a 3-for-5 showing against the Gophers.)

Nebraska can mitigate some of the rebounding deficiency with a two-big lineup of Cain and Veerbeek that is giving opponents fits.

“I like this team because I think there’s versatility there,” Williams told me in mid-December. “They’ve done a good job through some injuries and in-and-out and some players being able to play and some having to limit minutes here and there and we’ve been able to just kind of adjust to that and lean on different people at different times.

“There have been times where Ashtyn Veerbeek really just set the tone for our team with her scoring ability and shooting ability. Times where Kate Cain was impossible to guard. Times where Leigha Brown is just offensively carrying the load for us. Nicea [Eliely]’s sparking us. I just think the versatility, the fact that we have a lot of different people that can contribute and we tend to adjust to some of the negative adversity, is what I like most about our team up to this point.”

“If we play hard, if we play 40 minutes of great basketball, we can beat anyone we come up against,” Haiby said Saturday. “We feel like we can play with anyone right now.”

The crowd on hand for Saturday’s game was as good as any single regular-season crowd I’ve seen in my short time covering this team. They made a difference. These women deserve that same level of excitement and investment moving forward.

Nebraska got only one vote in the last round of AP top-25 polling. It deserves some more attention moving forward.

Circle Jan. 16 on the calendar. That’s the one and only time this regular season the Huskers will play a Maryland team currently 10-3 and ranked No. 12 nationally. It’ll be on the road. It’ll be a prime opportunity for Nebraska to show something that’s been flying under the radar to this point.

These Huskers might be special.

 
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