Husker women’s basketball head coach Amy Williams took on Greg Sharpe on Sports Nightly Monday night. That sounds contentious; the conversation was anything but. Williams seems in good spirits even though her team’s season was cut dead in March by the spread of COVID-19. In a conversation that spanned roughly 12 minutes, she covered a good deal of ground. Here are the highlights.
>> Williams and her assistants were on the road when the NCAA announced in-person recruiting was being shut down. She had just touched down in Minnesota to visit 2021 guard Kendall Coley when she got a phone call that she needed to return to campus.
Williams was hoping to take advantage of two rest days she’d given the Huskers as they prepared for what was likely going to be an NIT berth, but en route back to Lincoln, as things started to unfold and it became clear the college basketball season was over, she was suddenly given a new task: comforting a team rather than refocusing them.
“It was obviously disappointing. I think with our team we’d spent a lot of time just getting ourselves refocused on what we could get out of making a huge run in postseason play,” she said. “Our kids had really bought into that, we were excited, we had very spirited practices.
“We spent some time with our team just putting our emotions and feelings on the table about that situation. It was just disappointing after the amount of focus that we had recaptured after coming home from the Big Ten tournament and getting ready for the opportunity that was ahead of us, and to have that ripped away and everything end so suddenly… but I think from that time things have really escalated and become a lot more clear about the reasons and the necessity for that, and so at this point we, along with everyone else, have just switched into the health and safety and wellbeing of our student athletes and that’s the most important piece.”
>> Williams says the team holds a weekly call on Zoom just to get everyone in the same space. She also tries to talk with each player individually “every few days.” An assistant coach (she didn’t specify who) also holds individual calls with returning players focused on their academics.
“Without that (ability to connect face-to-face and train together), we’ve had to be really intentional about being able to find ways to still communicate and connect with them,” she said.
>> Football isn’t the only team at Nebraska benefitting from Dave Ellis’ drive-thru food service. Williams’ hoopers can pull up outside Memorial Stadium and get some Husker-approved meals as well.
“We’re very fortunate to have Dave Ellis, and his staff, (who) have been very helpful with our kids to make sure they’re not eating cheeseburgers and they’re staying active and committed and staying on task with the goals we have as athletes individually but also the goals we have as a program,” Williams said.
>> With student-athletes across the country leaving campuses and returning home, there’s been an uptick in transfer portal entries it seems. With everything that’s going on, the uncertainty of it all and the emotions tied to being away, sos many student-athletes are deciding if they weren’t already close to home they wanted to change that.
Nebraska has been especially hit hard by transfers since the season ended. Minnesota native Kayla Mershon announced she was transferring to play her final two years with the Gophers. Around that time, starting forward and Iowa native Ashtyn Veerbeek signed with Dordt University, and NAIA program in Sioux Center, Iowa, just a 15-minute drive from where he mom coaches high school volleyball. Then Leigha Brown, an Auburn, Indiana, native, announced she was transferring to Michigan.
“There’s no question it presents a challenge,” Williams said of the portal. Because of the one-and-done rule on the men’s side, men’s basketball has had somewhat of a head start in terms of figuring out how to navigate unstable rosters each year. “There’s a difference between building a program and building teams from year to year,” Williams said. The women’s side has been doing the former for much longer than the men.
“I think the transfer portal has just kind of adjusted that for everybody,” she said. “It’s a different, unique challenge, but it’s definitely something you adjust to and you find ways to continue to build and put together the right pieces.”
>> Williams certainly has adjusted. Just last week, with the late signing period officially upon us, Nebraska announced a three-woman 2020 signing class that featured three transfers.
The first, a graduate transfer guard from Cal—Mi’Cole Cayton. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Cayton originally committed to Nebraska out of high school, but when Williams took over, she asked for a release. She wanted to stay closer to home in Stockton, California.
“Whenever there’s a coaching change there’s kind of little scary aspect with that, ‘Is the new staff going to really see my value and fall in love with what my role could be the same way (as the old staff)?’ Within a week or so of getting hired, Coach Love and I had flown out to California and sat down with Mi’Cole and her father and really kind of talked through some of the vision we had for the program, but I think at that time she had already made up her mind that maybe this was a sign she needed to stay closer to home,” Williams said of the 5-foot-9 guard.
“I think she always just had this love for Nebraska. She is excited to have an opportunity to come and put on that Husker jersey for the first time. She brings just an incredible passion for the game, she’s high energy, and just is really chomping at the bit to get back on the court.”
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The other guard Nebraska signed, Nailah Dillard, will sit one to play three in Lincoln. As a freshman last season playing at Texas Tech, Dillard appeared in 23 games (two starts) and averaged nearly four points and two boards a night.
“I think she really has confidence on both sides of the ball,” Williams said. “She can find ways to impact things defensively and she’s a great shooter (35% from 3). She just has some other elements to her game that are just waiting to come out, and we’re really excited about the versatility she can bring at that guard position.”
Both Cayton and Dillard were known before April 15 when they signed; Nebraska’s third signee was not. Bella Cravens, a 6-foot-3 junior forward from Eastern Washington, is also in the class.
“Just a fantastic young lady whose biggest concern is that she wants to develop as a player,” Williams said of Cravens. “Just a hungry kid. She led the Big Sky in rebounding”—8.5 a game to go with 10.4 points in 26 starts—“and that’s something we’ve been really striving to get better at as a program. We feel like she brings something we desperately need, she fits a position, and she’s hungry to just get better.”
>> Nebraska might not be done either.
“We’re continuing to actively recruit right now, and we’re excited about a couple of other options that could be on the table. Absolutely we have room, and if we can find the right pieces that will complement the players we currently have, we would definitely (take another player). We’re still working.”
The late signing period, thanks to an extension from the NCAA, now runs through August 1.
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.