Whitney Brown had a hint on Wednesday she’d be starting. On Thursday, head coach Amy Williams confirmed it—the true freshman walk-on from Grand Island was drawing her first career start for Nebraska in its opening game of the WNIT.
“Sam Haiby (came) up to me before the game telling me, ‘Hey girl, you got it, just believe in yourself. Don’t be nervous,” Brown said.
After Haiby dominated the stage last time Nebraska was on the court, she completely ceded the spotlight Friday. The Huskers’ leading scorer this year had two points and took two shots in 30 minutes, the first attempt not coming until there were nine seconds to play in the first half.
And Nebraska beat UT Martin, the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champ, 72-46 to open WNIT play.
Brown had 12. She hadn’t scored more than two points in a game since Feb. 7. But when the fourth quarter got rolling on Friday, Brown was drilling triples. Three of her four makes from beyond the arc came in the first 3:56 of the fourth, key shots in a 17-4 run to open the fourth.
Nebraska led by as many as 29 points.
“Whitney has been playing great, she just hasn’t found a lot of shot opportunities and today, with the gameplan that Tennessee Martin came in with, she was able to find seven opportunities from behind the arc,” Williams said. “That spells well for us. I have confidence in her ability, she works really hard.”
UT Martin opened the game with a matchup zone look defensively and it caught Nebraska a little off-kilter. NU shot 2-for-14 from beyond the arc in the first half and just 27% from the field overall in the second quarter.
The Skyhawks doubled down on every post touch, forcing second-quarter turnovers and tie-ups. They packed the paint and sent a lot of focus toward Haiby on the drive and Nebraska’s post players on the block.
To start the third quarter, Nebraska found the corners for triples and worked the ball around to open shots.
A slim 27-24 edge at the halftime break immediately ballooned to a 40-24 lead. Center Kate Cain got to the free throw line to start, guard Ashley Scoggin drilled a triple off a Brown assist, forward Issie Bourne converted an and-one off a fleet-footed spin, then Brown drilled a wing 3.
Nebraska never looked back.
“We talked about how we wanted to continue to attack, and then in the third quarter it certainly didn’t hurt that we made some perimeter shots that made them pay for clogging the lane and taking away any type of penetration opportunities for Sam and making life pretty difficult in the low post,” Williams said.
Which is where Brown came in.
“I think Whit definitely deserved to be in the starting lineup and she’s earned that opportunity,” Williams said. “She was a good matchup in this particular game. We thought they may play quite a bit of zone and to have another kid who we really have confidence in her ability to knock down shots was another big reason that went into it.”
Nebraska won the paint and dominated the boards (45-25). Interior play has been a huge emphasis for Williams of late.
A few weeks before their regular season ended, she brought Big Ten rebounding leaderboards into practice, showing the Huskers standing at 13th and 14th in various categories. “Critical,” Williams called Nebraska’s effort on and attention to the boards. Forward Bella Cravens had a game-high 14 off the bench. Bourne added eight. Freshman forward Annika Stewart had six, Brown had five.
“It has been a focus in our practices, in every pregame talk, in every hotel lobby film session,” Williams said. “To come into this tournament carrying that momentum and continuing to want to place that as an emphasis, and to have that sort of a dominating rebounding performance is really important.”
Because that kind of inside-outside play is when Nebraska is at its best. NU had 11 offensive boards and hit eight of its 24 triples. Twelve points came on second-chance opportunities.
“We really just moved the ball around well,” Brown said. “I think we really worked well as a team today.”
Which is to say nothing of the play at the other end. Nebraska was so efficient offensively, the defense might take a backseat, but NU was clinical at the other end.
UT Martin forward Chelsey Perry entered Friday’s game averaging about 23 points a game on 51% shooting from the field and 41% from beyond the arc. Her play was a key part of NU’s scout; if post defenders could limit her one-on-one, Nebraska’s guards would be able to stick to their assignments on the perimeter and limit what is a good 3-point shooting team.
Perry took 15 shots in the first half and only made four of them. For the game, she scored 20 points on 25 shots. “She’s a great player,” Williams said, “… but anybody that we force to take 25 shots to put up 20 points, we’ll usually take that.” Perry’s 20 points and 10 boards weren’t particularly impactful. She had 13 at the halftime break.
“We went into the game and we were going to use Kate’s length and shot-blocking, and then when (Perry) moved out and hit those couple 3s in the first quarter and Kate got into foul trouble, we moved Issie and Bella more to Perry after that,” Williams said.
“I think just giving her different looks—the length of Anni and Kate for a little bit, then Issie and Bella using a little more athleticism—really helped us make things difficult for her.”
Bourne and Cravens were excellent in one-on-one defense. UT Martin—shorthanded for the game—ran most of its offense through Perry and Nebraska made her work to even get a shot off.
It was a complete team effort. Brown thought Haiby and guard Mi’Cole Cayton off the bench sparked play at the defensive end with their intensity. Everyone else matched.
Haiby wasn’t needed to score, but she did plenty of other stuff. “I thought she did a great job of just trying to be a constant, solid nag for their point guard, making every crossover difficult,” Williams said.
Cayton got hot in the third quarter—a blow-by layup moving right to left across the lane, then a shot-fake from the top of the key and foul-drawing drive, then a corner 3 drilled.
Brown got her buckets to start the fourth.
Scoggin and Bourne each had 13 to pace the Huskers. Brown had her 12. Cayton added 10. Cravens had eight points and Stewart had seven. Freshman Kendall Coley even knocked in a triple. Everyone who played scored. Nebraska’s two most senior players were the two quietest.
“I was very excited, a little bit nervous stepping on the court, but it’s just special with this team,” Brown said of her first start. “Just to be on the court and know everybody has my back.”
Nebraska will look to keep it rolling on Saturday. It’ll face the winner of Louisiana-Colorado, with tip-off scheduled for 5 p.m. CT on FloHoops.
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.