There was a little bit of stress at the end, but not for the reasons Nebraska has come to know fondly over the course of the last month or so, and certainly not to the same extent. Husker head coach Amy Williams was imploring her team to finish strong, not grind out another dogfight.
Second- and third-quarter work against one of the worst in the Big Ten so far this season gave Nebraska a 20-point lead for the first time since its season-opener. NU just out-executed Wisconsin through the middle portion of the game. An 84-68 win over the Badgers was the reward.
“We know any win in the Big Ten is a quality win,” Williams said.
“Right now, where we’re kind of in a position where we’re trying to work a few new players into (the) rotation and take a peek at things, a game like this today kind of allowed us to do that. … We tried as much as we could, but I still see Sammi had 32 minutes and Bella had 32 minutes, but I guess that’s better than 38 or 40.”
A winner in six of its last eight, Nebraska is surging.
Thursday night’s win moved it to 9-5 on the year and 7-4 in Big Ten play. Confidence appears to be at an all-time high.
Mi’Cole Cayton once again gave Nebraska strong minutes off the bench after her season debut Monday night ended with a bang. She’s still learning the Husker system, but passing and defense is a welcome addition, Williams said.
Whitney Brown and Annika Stewart brought the scoring punch for the second unit (19 combined points). A pair of triples from Brown in the third was a momentum-building moment, Williams thought. And Stewart’s 13 points (on 6-of-11 shooting) came on the heels of a 12-point effort the last time out.
Sam Haiby started things off with 11 points in the first quarter. Ruby Porter took charge in the second quarter with a flurry of buckets. Kate Cain powered a 23-point third with nine of her 16 points.
With just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Nebraska led by 26.
Wisconsin shot 30% in the first half after missing 11 of its first 12 buckets. Nebraska blocked 10 shots.
“There have been a lot of games we’ve won with our defense,” Cain said. “I think we just know that in order to win these games we really do have to play well on the defensive end.”
That’s been the case for a while, especially with the rotation constrained by injury, but Thursday night also marked the best offensive day for Nebraska since that season-opener on Dec. 4.
In fact, it’s the most points a Husker team has scored in a league game since another 84-point performance in a blowout of Purdue on Jan. 31, 2019—nearly two years.
The Huskers did it as a team.
Nebraska whipped the ball around. Haiby opened up driving lanes with which to attack early, and then Nebraska came out of the halftime break with a concerted effort to pound the basketball inside.
“I thought one of our more complete offensive games,” Williams said.
As a team: 20 assists, nine turnovers, 54% shooting.
The coach likes that.
Cain had 16 points and 10 rebounds, her 15th career double-double. Forward Bella Cravens added 13 points and 11 boards. Porter had a career-high 12.
Haiby had 24 on just 13 shots, her third straight game with at least 20 points. On a night where balanced scoring was a key takeaway for Williams, Haiby’s ability to power everything but do it within the framework of the offense stands out.
“It’s pretty clear Sam’s playing with a lot of confidence, and she’s become pretty difficult to defend because if you do this then she can do this and if you do this then she can do this,” Williams said.
“The biggest thing that catches my eye tonight is she gets herself to the free throw line when we need her to, she finds ways to make big shots and hit 3s when nobody else is really making 3s. It’s the five assists and no turnovers for me tonight. She really controls things. There’s the confidence and air of kind of peace when she’s out there with the rest of our team.”
Every game since Dec. 31 has ended with a margin in the single-digits for the Huskers. They’ve been in tight ball games that go down to the wire for just shy of a month. This was a needed break, but it still served as a teaching moment for Williams, who didn’t like the way her group closed out a blowout.
With 6:10 to play in the fourth, Nebraska had a 25-point lead. With 3:34 to play, the margin had been cut to 14 with an 11-0 Badger run. Nebraska turned the ball over and let the Badgers in close to the cup.
“We’re a little disappointed and wish we could have put together a full 40 minutes,” Williams said.
Room to keep building.
Nebraska’s off for a week before a road trip to Penn State on Feb. 4. Tip-off for that is set for 5 p.m. CT.