Talk about an introduction.
Mi’Cole Cayton had missed the first 12 games of Nebraska’s season. After knee surgeries robbed her of three of her four seasons at Cal, the grad transfer guard came to Lincoln this offseason and waited just a little bit longer to be cleared to play. This past weekend, she got that clearance.
On Monday night, in her first collegiate basketball minutes since November of 2018, Cayton scored her first points in 793 days early at the free throw line. Nebraska, once again shorthanded and shooting in the 20s from the field all game, just hung with Illinois, and a 22-6 free throw disparity helped that cause.
Then in the game’s closing moments, she just straight took the ball away from Illinois’ J-Naya Ephraim. Seven of her 19 minutes came in the fourth quarter. Her defense was as advertised. Nebraska left with a 57-53 win to get to 8-5 on the year.
A split pair of free throws put Nebraska up four with 1:08 to play. An immediate response from Illinois by way of an Aaliyah Nye triple brought it back to one with 52 seconds to play. A poor shot late in the clock from Nebraska on the ensuing possession gave Illinois the ball with a chance to go for the game-winner.
Nebraska could have fouled—NU went the first nine minutes only doing so once—but it didn’t need to. The margin was one point. The clock had 15 seconds on it. When Illinois inbounded the ball, Cayton timed up a swipe perfectly.
— Nebraska WBB (@HuskersWBB) January 26, 2021
She was immediately fouled, and knocked down one of two free throws at the other end to get the NU lead to two.
With 10 seconds to play, same situation as just moments earlier, Haiby didn’t even let the inbounds pass reach its target, undercutting the throw and racing the other way. She too was fouled, confidently sank both of her free throws—her 21st and 22nd points on the evening—and Nebraska put the game to bed.
Cayton was supposed to begin her career in Lincoln. A recruit out of the 2016 class, she signed with Nebraska when Connie Yori was still steering the program, but after Yori’s resignation, Cayton decided to reverse course and stay in her home state of California.
She played in all 34 games her freshman season, and started the first game of her sophomore season (put up 13 points) but in the process she tore her ACL. Recovery and rehab cost her the entire 2017-18 season. Multiple surgeries on the same knee since have afforded her only three games in the last two years.
She’d been suiting up for the Huskers and going through warmup periods throughout much of the opening portion of this year, but she hadn’t seen any game action before Monday night.
At the 4:25 mark of the first quarter, she officially made her debut. The defensive presence—something coach Amy Williams has often talked about when discussing Cayton’s game—was immediately noticeable.
She keeps her hands up and uses her length, she moves her feet well, and she’s got good instincts. Generally, she plays how you’d expect a savvy guard to play on the perimeter. Twice in the second half she drew charges.
Illinois shot just 37% for the game. Nebraska, at 30%, wasn’t much better. Against a team that entered the day 0-6 in conference play, sure, that’s a little tough to stomach, but Nebraska was once again missing sophomore forward Issie Bourne and her 14 points per game.
Bourne missed her third straight game with an ankle injury. In her place, freshman guard Ruby Porter started once again, and she perhaps had her most productive game (11 points and four boards), but took 10 triples to get her points.
In Bourne’s absence, Nebraska has leaned on Haiby.
The first time these two teams met—Dec. 10, a 78-72 Husker win—Haiby went off, scoring a career-high 33 points. Her performance Monday night, marked by a 9-for-12 showing at the charity stripe, wasn’t quite that, but it was her fourth 20-point effort of the season and just enough to power NU to the win.
Twelve of her 22 came in the fourth. Nebraska outscored Illinois 19-13 in the frame. Haiby took more free throws during it (eight) than Illinois took all game.
Which is the way NU has had to play for most of the weird year. Rely on strong defense, get playmaking from its stars in the clutch.
Haiby did her part Monday night.
And the newcomer showed she’s got some stuff, too.
Next up for Nebraska: a home meeting with Wisconsin (3-10, 0-10 Big Ten) on Thursday, Jan. 28. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. CT.
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.