Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Biggest Test of the Season Awaits Nebraska Women in Winston-Salem

November 30, 2021

The Nebraska women’s basketball team’s blowout wins over Maine, Prairie View A&M, Alabama A&M and North Carolina Central were nice ways to start the season and get their legs under them. The average score of those contests was 102-47.

The 67-62 win over Creighton showed the Huskers could get tough and win a slugfest. One can put the most recent wins—over Drexel and host San Diego at The Dana on Mission Bay Holiday Tournament in San Diego last week—in that category as well.

But head coach Amy Williams’ Huskers face their biggest test of the season Wednesday as they travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to play the Wake Forest Demon Deacons as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Wake Forest is undefeated at 7-0, just like Nebraska is, and has one of the best defenses in the nation.

Williams, who spoke with the media on Tuesday, said her team learned a lot about itself at the tournament in San Diego. The Huskers got two hard-fought wins, but the turnovers stuck out like a sore thumb. Nebraska had 16 assists and 19 turnovers against Drexel while against San Diego, it dished out 14 assists with 23 turnovers.

Williams and her players know that turning the ball over 42 times in a two-game span isn’t going to go well if it happens against better competition like they’ll face at Wake Forest and in the Big Ten.

“I thought when we went on the road, we got a couple of quality wins over good teams, but had too many turnovers in the process,” Williams said. “So we have some things we really need to clean up, and we know in order to go be successful in a road game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, we won’t be able to have that luxury.”

Nebraska and Wake Forest is an interesting matchup. The Huskers’ offense is averaging 86.6 points per game, which ranks fifth-best in the nation. The Demon Deacons are a defensive-focused team, only allowing 48.7 points per contest, which ranks 11th in the country.

Williams said she’s been very impressed with Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are well-balanced team, even though the offense seems to flow through their star player, Jewel Spear.

The 5-foot-10 Spear, just a sophomore, is averaging a team-high 19.4 points this season and shooting 37% (18-of-48) from behind the arc. In Wake Forest’s win over Cornell on Nov. 12, Spear scored a season-high 32 points in 31 minutes and went 7-of-11 from 3-point range. Spear was a member of the 2021 USA U19 World Cup Team that went 7-0 and won the gold medal.

“She’s just an incredible talent and had some great experiences this summer playing with USA basketball. She kind of really sparks them,” Williams said of Spear. “She’s dangerous in a lot of different ways as a basketball player—she can shoot the 3 but she’s really shifty and crafty. I think everything kind of goes through her, but they have an incredible supporting cast around her and have added some great pieces.”

Wake Forest runs “great” actions according to Williams. So, who will draw the assignment of guarding Spear? It won’t any one defender’s job. It’ll be a team effort to try to get her off her game.

“We’re going to have to really mix things up, throw some different looks at her I think, and have different players at different times throughout the game just to try to mix it up a little,” Williams said. “Give her some length, give her some speed, just throw some different things at her.”

Wake Forest has length—it boasts a roster that incudes eight players 6-feet or taller, including the 6-2 forward Christina Morra, who is averaging 8.3 points—and the Demon Deacons start a wing player and use her on top of their 3/4 court pressure.

“It appears to me that they’re really high IQ and very scout-driven,” Williams said of Wake Forest. “They play well to scouts, and every game I’ve watched of theirs, I felt like they’ve been able to adjust and tweak just a little bit of their defensive scheme. But it looks and appears they’re getting their opponents to take the shots that they want them to take, and pulling their opponents out of what they want to do, which is different every time. That’s a special talent in and of itself.”

While Wake Forest has a star player in Spear, Nebraska has multiple players it can lean on throughout a game. Jaz Shelley has consistently been that player for Williams.

Shelley, a transfer from Oregon, erupted for 30 points in the tournament win over Drexel and was 6-of-7 from 3-point range. A day later in the win over San Diego, Shelly had 16 points and was 5-of-8 from behind the arc.

While the team-high 14.6 points per game is easy to focus on, Shelley—who hails from Moe, Australia—is doing the dirty work, too. Even as a 5-9 guard, she’s still second on the team in average rebounding with 7.4. She has a team-high 32 assists, 11 steals and 12 blocked shots, three more than Bella Cravens.

Of course you’ll take the 30-point games, Williams said, but it’s the little things that are helping the team, too.

“It’s the energy plays that we have really been trying to focus on and emphasize,” Williams said of Shelley, “that’s been something that I’ve been the most excited about.”

Nebraska and Wake Forest are slated for a 6 p.m. CT tip. It will be televised on WatchESPN.

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