It was senior night at Pinnacle Bank Arena and once the final horn sounded, there were plenty of tears to be shed, hugs to be had and goodbyes to be said, but first, Nebraska had business to tend to.
A share of the Big Ten regular-season title was still on the table (and more easily attainable following Maryland’s loss to Michigan Thursday night). A double-bye in the Big Ten tournament was still on the table. Twenty wins, 11 of them in-conference, was still on the table. Lose and Nebraska could have tumbled all the way down to seventh in the conference. Win and a trip to the big dance would still be on the table.
So Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten) went all in, taking care of business with a 59-51 win over Penn State (15-13, 6-9 Big Ten), clinching at least a four-seed in the conference tournament and moving into a tie with Maryland for second place in the conference (though the Terps own the tie-breaker). And though the night belonged to seniors Jasmine Cincore, Janay Morton and Emily Wood, the game belonged to the freshman, Kate Cain.
Cain set a new career-high for rebounds with 20 boards. Penn State had nine offensive rebounds as a whole, Cain had eight by herself. As a freshman, she now owns the sixth-best individual rebounding game in Husker program history.
“Kate is huge for our team,” forward Maddie Simon said.
Head coach Amy Williams lauded the effort of her freshman center, saying it’s often times hard to rely on a first-year player to stick their nose in the paint and grind out rebounds — a staple of Cain’s performance.
“I thought she really wanted to play well for her seniors,” Williams said. “She really came up big.”
The rebounding dominance started with Cain, but it didn’t end there. Nebraska won that battle as a team 60-31. The margin, plus-29, was the largest of the season and the ninth-largest in a single game in program history.
“Thank God we were rebounding,” Williams said with a sigh of relief postgame. "It’s funny, my husband and I were just talking and he said, ‘When your team was really playing well offensively we were like if we don’t correct this rebounding problem it’s going to bite us in the butt,’ and now the last few games we’ve really rebounded it well and we haven’t shot the ball quite as well.
“Part of that is this time of year defenses are starting to really take things away and we have to be just that much more sharp offensively but I am very glad that we found a way to correct our rebounding problem.”
The first go-around with Maryland saw Nebraska lose the rebounding battle 49-29, the worst margin of the year. When the Huskers rebound better than their opponent, they’re 16-4 this season. When they lose that battle? Just 4-4.
“Rebounding has been one of the main things we’ve been keying in on and we know we have to out-rebound teams to win games,” Cain said.
Simon said the growth over the last several games on the boards has started in practice. She credited the team’s practice players, all “big and strong and over six-feet tall” and pushing the regular rotation players day in and day out.
“That’s where it starts, just having a rebounding mentality in practice and it carried over tonight,” she said.
It was good timing too, as the Huskers hit season-low percentages from both the field and beyond the 3-point line. Nebraska finished at 31 percent from the floor and just 10 percent (2-of-20) from 3-point territory. Asked if she felt a little more secure knowing the rebounding was rounding into form while the shooting sagged, Williams said, “Yeah it absolutely makes us feel a lot more secure that we can hang our hat on that area.”
Penn State struggled on offense as well, though the Huskers’ defense had something to do with that. The Lady Lions shot 28 percent for the game, 19 percent on 3s and 61 percent from the charity stripe. They missed some open shots, sure, but for most of the evening the Huskers lived up to their home’s moniker with lockdown defense. Penn State missed 13 of their final 14 shots to end the first half and didn’t hit a bucket in the final 5:50.
Cain just nodded her head when she heard that. Simon looked pleased.
“We just really wanted to come back and have a strong effort after last game,” she said.
The Huskers close out their season on Sunday at 11 a.m. CT on the road against No. 13 Maryland (22-6, 11-4 Big Ten). Should they win, they’d clinch the two-seed in the Big Ten tournament and be an Ohio State loss away from a share of the regular season conference title after finishing last year at the opposite end.
“I really think there are some things that we can correct,” Williams said of the offense.
But in playing Maryland a second time, she expects her team to be a little more confident and a little looser.
“We really have nothing to lose.”
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.