Following back-to-back road losses to a couple of the best teams in the Big Ten—No. 15 Maryland and No. 21 Ohio State—a key, but favorable, stretch awaits the Nebraska women’s basketball team as it gets set to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Champaign.
Counting Illinois, the Huskers have six games left on their regular-season schedule, three of which are on the road and three inside the friendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena. Those six teams—the aforementioned Illini, No. 7 Indiana, Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern—have a combined league record of 25-42. Of those six, Nebraska will be the underdog against only one: Indiana. The Huskers will be favored against the rest, with the contests against the Hoosiers, Nittany Lions and Badgers all being played in Lincoln.
With an upset win over the Hoosiers, a team Nebraska almost clawed back to win against after trailing big early on Jan. 13, the Huskers have a chance to go 6-0 or, at worst, 5-1. If Nebraska splits its next two games, perhaps a win over the Illini and a loss to the Hoosiers, the final four opponents on the schedule have a combined conference record of 15-34.
That’s a favorable stretch and one that could possibly lead to a strong finish to the regular season with four straight wins, sending the Huskers into the Big Ten tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis March 2-6 with positive momentum and confidence.
To help accomplish that, Nebraska will need to start taking better care of the ball. In the first six games against Big Ten opponents—Minnesota, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa twice and Iowa—the Huskers averaged 13.8 turnovers per game. In the most recent six against Wisconsin, Purdue, Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State, that number has climbed to 15.1.
On Dec. 10, 2021, Nebraska ranked 41st in the country in fewest turnovers per game with 13.7. A month later on Jan. 10, 2022, the Huskers were 48th with 14 per contest. On Feb. 10, they’ve dipped down to 79th, averaging 14.5.
While the turnover numbers are steadily rising, Nebraska is still middle of the pack in that area compared to other Big Ten teams. It’s 14.5 turnovers per game against conference foes ranks as the sixth-fewest in the league while its .50 turnover margin is fifth. Thanks in large part to the playmaking of guard Jaz Shelley, whose 5.2 assists per game ranks sixth in the conference, Nebraska’s assist-to-turnover ratio, 1.11, ranks fifth in the Big Ten.
What to watch for
The Huskers’ face a struggling Illinois team that will come into the game 6-13 overall and just 1-7 in the Big Ten. While the Huskers rank inside the top-100 nationally in a whopping 13 categories, the Illini aren’t ranked in any. Only one player is averaging double-digit scoring for Illinois—5-foot-11 guard Aaliyah Nye with 11.1.
Illinois’ offense is scoring 65.1 points per game and allowing 72.6, which ranks 322nd in the country. This should be a good opportunity for the Huskers to play bully ball and get the post touches it wants with Alexis Markowski, Isabelle Bourne and Bella Cravens.
Markowski is coming off an Ohio State game where she recorded her fourth double-double of the season with 23 points and 15 rebounds. Bourne, a former second-team All-Big Ten selection, is starting to find her offensive groove again as she added 12 points and six rebounds against the Buckeyes. That was the third consecutive game where Bourne has scored in double figures, something that hasn’t been done since the first three games of the season.
The game with the Illini will also provide opportunities for Shelley and Sam Haiby to find their offensive games again. After being held scoreless on 0-of-10 shooting against Maryland, Shelley responded with 14 points against Ohio State, but it took her 12 shots to get there. Haiby hasn’t scored in double figures since Rutgers four games ago. Against the Buckeyes, she was held to two points on 0-of-6 shooting. Both Shelley and Haiby are shooting below 36% from the field against conference opponents.
Nebraska and Illinois will be televised on Big Ten Plus.