On Thursday, Nebraska (9-9, 4-3 Big Ten) welcomes Northwestern (11-7, 4-3 Big Ten) to Pinnacle Bank Arena for a 7 p.m. tilt. The Huskers are aiming for their third straight win, getting them back over .500 for the first time since Dec. 31. Northwestern is looking for its third straight win as well.
Here are three things to know about the game.
1. Northwestern has Nebraska’s Inconsistencies, but Bigger Wins
Last Thursday, Nebraska went on the road and rolled past Illinois 77-67 thanks to a career-high scoring performance from freshman forward Ashtyn Veerbeek and a hot start. The Huskers followed that up with a 63-57 upset win over No. 23 Minnesota last Sunday.
But Northwestern did damage of its own. Last Wednesday, the Wildcats went to Indiana — ranked No. 25 at the time — and left with a 75-69 win over the Hoosiers. Then on Sunday, the Cats stomped Wisconsin in Evanston, 72-46.
The back-to-back wins for the Huskers came on the heels of a three-game losing streak. And before that slide began, the Huskers had won two in a row. Northwestern has done the same. In their last 13 games, the Cats lost three straight, then won two in a row, then lost two, then won two, then lost two, then won two. So if they hold true to form, Nebraska might be in good shape Thursday.
But unlike Nebraska, Northwestern started this season hot. The Wildcats won their first five games by an average of 21 points, including a 26-point win over then-No. 21 Duke at home. They’ve also already played five top-25 opponents this season, with a 3-2 record in those games. Nebraska has played five as well, but sit at 1-4.
In the RPI, these two sides are separated by 10 spots. This one could be close.
2. Super Freshmen
Nebraska is the only team in the Big Ten with two freshmen as its leading scorers. It’s also the only Big Ten squad with two non-starters as its leading scorers.
Leigha Brown, a 6-1 forward from Auburn, Indiana, shares the team scoring lead with guard Sam Haiby at 10.3 points a night.
Brown has been light’s out in conference play, scoring a team-best 13.0 points a night on 47 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent shooting from 3-point range. Head coach Amy Williams has mentioned that Brown’s emergence has been helped by her ability to push her way to the free throw line of late; in conference play she’s taking five shots at the charity stripe a night and converting at a 74 percent clip.
Haiby, a 5-9 guard from Moorhead, Minnesota, is at 9.3 points a night in conference play, though she has struggled more from the field against Big Ten opponents (38.6 percent overall, 25 percent from deep) than she did in the nonconference (45.4 percent). In the absence of grad transfer point guard Kristian Hudson (out for an undetermined amount of time with injury), Haiby has transitioned from sharing the court with starting point guard Hannah Whitish to spelling her. As a result, Nebraska has developed one of the better compliments at the position in the league.
Whitish is the more traditional point, running sets in the halfcourt and making sure the offense stays on track. Haiby bumps up the pace and seeks to score off the dribble or in the pick-and-roll with fellow freshman Ashtyn Veerbeek.
Veerbeek is at 8.2 points and 6.1 boards on the season. Her game was slow to find traction when league play began, but Veerbeek has found a grove of late. She had 19 points and eight boards in the win over Illinois.
Then there’s forward Kayla Mershon, whose numbers won’t jump off the page, but her defense has displaced senior wing Maddie Simon in the starting five during the last two games.
The underclassmen on the bench fuel what is the best-scoring second unit in the Big Ten (39.9 a night).
Northwestern is the opposite. The bench gives 29.3 points while the starting lineup features two double-digit scorers.
Sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam leads the Wildcats with 16.6 points a night. She has struggled from distance this year, hitting just seven of her 42 3s (2-for-13 in Big Ten play) but it hasn’t really affected her ability to put the ball in the net. She’s up to 19.4 points per game in conference action and is coming off a 21-point performance against Wisconsin that featured an 11-for-12 mark at the charity stripe.
Senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah provides the inside presence with 11.6 points and 10.8 rebounds a night. As far as defensive specialists go, Kunaiyi-Akpanah is as good as it gets in the Big Ten; she’s got 31 blocks and 29 steals on the season. She had 21 points and 15 boards in the win over Wisconsin.
Whereas six of Nebraska’s main contributors at this point in the season are underclassmen, Northwestern has six upperclassmen playing significant roles. The Huskers are by far the youngest team in the Big Ten while the Wildcats are right in the middle of the league in terms of minutes played.
3. Lots of Thieving Going On
Against Minnesota, junior guard Nicea Eliely set a Husker record in the fourth quarter. Williams went to a 1-3-1 zone to try and get the Huskers back into the game and Eliely responded with five steals in the fourth alone. The five marked a program record for steals in a single quarter.
Eliely finished with a career-high six in the game.
As a team, the Huskers are getting their hands on roughly nine steals a game and forcing turnovers at a high rate. Opponents are giving the ball away 17.7 times a game against Nebraska.
For a team with a plus-1.3 scoring margin like the Huskers, those extra possessions are crucial.
But Northwestern does the same thing. The Wildcats average 9.6 steals a night and force 17.6 turnovers.
Northwestern has a plus-11 scoring margin and is outshooting its opponents where Nebraska is being out-shot.
Typically, rebounding is the area of emphasis for Williams and her Huskers, and while it will certainly be a point of focus, this one could be impacted greatly by who is able to take better care of its own possessions and create havoc on its defensive end.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.