Amy Williams pre-recorded messages for each of her four seniors Friday with Husker Vision. Nebraska’s women’s basketball team holds Senior Day ceremonies after the game instead of before, and Williams wanted to try and get through the ordeal without being too overcome by emotion.
Still, Husker Vision saw some emotion.
The four-woman senior class that will play on the court inside Pinnacle Bank Arena Saturday afternoon for the last time—Hannah Whitish, Nicea Eliely, Grace Mitchell, and Kristian Hudson—has meant that much to Williams.
For Whitish, Eliely, and Mitchell, they were Williams’ first recruiting class at Nebraska. When she arrived in Lincoln by way of South Dakota, Nebraska was in the midst of a transition class. Some backed off commitments made to former head coach Connie Yori. Eliely didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. Whitish already knew Williams and the rest of her coaching staff after having been recruited to South Dakota.
The 5-foot-9 guard from Wisconsin has been Williams point guard ever since.
“She’s been such a staple and presence for so long that I’m just not going to think about it right now, what it’s going to be like without that,” Williams said.
The bond between head coach and point guard in basketball is unique. They are an extension of the coaching staff. They are another coach out on the court. They are a calming presence, a cerebral player, all the cliches one could think of. Whitish has a special bond with her coach, there’s no doubt.
The two talk when Williams is out on the road, parked in the parking lot of a gym either about to go scout someone or having just finished up scouting someone. They talk in Williams’ office frequently. They have lunch together.
Nebraska originally wanted Whitish to come play off the ball. Don’t tell her Williams said this, but that was the plan at South Dakota as well. But transition classes are anything but predictable, and Whitish had to be a No. 1 from Day 1.
“To step into a starting point guard role as a freshman is not an easy thing to do, but I thought she really peaked at the end of her freshman year and since then there’s just been a confidence and a poise she has about her on the court,” Williams said.
That first year, 2016-17, when Nebraska won seven games, Whitish started all 16 Big Ten games and the team’s lone conference tournament game. She led the team in assists (2.9). The following year, she led the team in scoring, assists, steals and 3-point shooting. She was the only Husker player to start all 32 games as Nebraska rebounded with an NCAA Tournament run.
Williams remembers a conference tournament moment from that season with vivid detail.
“We’re playing Michigan and she never even looked over at me at the bench, she just came right down the court and said, ‘Curl,’ and she pushed one of our players to the corner, she came off a sweep screen and curled right back and drained a 3 that was a huge bucket,” Williams recalled. “She called that play for herself outside of the realm of what we were.”
Nebraska was up just two points before her shot, 53-51 over the 24th-ranked Wolverines, and there was a little less than 90 seconds to play. Nebraska won that game 61-54. Threes break wills. Whitish broke Michigan’s that day.
A young player does that in a game with stakes that high and they run the risk of running afoul with their coach. If the shot goes in, all is well, but right up until the millisecond the ball meets nylon, the coach is thinking, “What have you done?”
That’s not the relationship Williams has with her point guard.
“Since then, we’ve been able to trust her to take control and take some of the reins,” Williams said. “It was really comforting.”
Sometimes, they go the other direction, as in trying to push the sharpshooter to be more aggressive in searching for her own offense. When Whitish gets it rolling, Nebraska is hard to beat. Since her sophomore year, Nebraska is 15-6 when she tops 15 points.
Suppose the presence of only 21 such games in three full years of starting serves to illustrate Williams’ point, but Whitish is a point guard in more than just status.
“I feel like we’ve helped (Williams) lay the foundation for what she’s wanted this program to be and what she wants this program to become,” Whitish said when asked what her and her classmates’ legacy will be at Nebraska. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job with helping her do that, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
And when Williams brought her eventual replacement to town, Whitish moved off-ball more and took a combo, slashing guard named Sam Haiby under her wing.
“It’s definitely a blessing having a veteran point guard like she is to be able to take me under her wing and guide me and help me,” Haiby said.
During the 2018-19 campaign, Haiby’s freshman season, Whitish was the starting point guard and Haiby was her back-up. Competitive natures in both women led to spirited practices. “She’s an insanely good defender, so if we’re not on the same team, she’s able to heat you up,” Whitish said. And Whitish is the kind of shooter that can get hot in spite of that aggressive defense.
What Haiby does well compliments what Whitish does well, and this season Williams put her two best guards on the floor together, assuming both would be able to work out who handles it when.
No “passing of the torch” story from one guard to another—they featured together during Haiby’s freshman year, too—but there is at least some irony to be found in the fact Whitish nearly began her college career as a two-guard, and she ended her career playing it more than she ever had.
“I think what it shows is just the versatility she has,” Williams said of Whitish. “There’s been times where she’s had to bring the ball up the floor every single possession and be hounded and that can just wear on you. The last couple of years, with Sam here, and just a little bit of help at that point guard position to be able to relieve her, to be able to step away from having the ball in her hands and being hounded up the court every single possession has been a blessing.
“Not every player can bounce back and forth and be successful and I think she’s done really well with that.”
Whitish said it actually helps her see better what’s going on, moving back and forth between spotting up and running the show. Finding her shots within the offense presented an adjustment, but there were no complaints.
“I think this year we’ve tried to just do everything we can for this season and be the best team we can this year,” Whitish said.
That resulted in a 13-2 start to the year. Nebraska was playing exceptional basketball. Of late, it’s been a struggle, with the ailments each game more of a moving target than a clearly-defined Achilles heel.
This group, to their coach’s pleasure (and credit) has kept fighting, though. One home game left now to send the fans home happy.
Nebraska tips against Illinois at 2 p.m. inside PBA. That’ll put the Senior Day ceremony somewhere around 4 p.m. Williams will then have to say a goodbye to the only point guard she’s really known at Nebraska.
Nebraska will be guaranteed two more games after that, and then it’s time to figure out what’s next at point guard. Maybe it’s someone else and they continue the on/off split with Haiby that the Minnesota native has grown accustomed to. She’s not picky, as long as she’s on the court.
Which she will be. Maybe Williams should show her the tape of that Whitish curl play from 2017.
“Just be confident,” Haiby said of the most important thing she’s learned from Whitish.
Perhaps another piece of Whitish’s legacy?
Yeah, there will likely be some emotion Saturday.