So far this season, Whitney Brown has been a positive off the Nebraska bench for coach Amy Williams. In 10 games, she’s seeing 16 minutes a night while giving Nebraska three points, two boards, and an assist each time out.
“I definitely did not picture this happening,” Brown, a true freshman, said of her immediate role. “I knew that I was going to have a role on the team, but I wasn’t sure what that was gonna be. And I think just with all the things that have happened this year—COVID, injuries, stuff like that—it’s just given me a good chance to step up and try to prove myself.”
She played her high school ball at Grand Island Northwest. Following her junior season, she took a preferred walk-on spot on Nebraska’s roster. The following year, she averaged 18 points, four boards and three assists a game.
The scoring hasn’t been the same yet at NU, but as injuries have decimated the roster’s depth, Williams has had to lean more and more on her three freshmen off the bench—Brown, wing Ruby Porter, and forward Annika Stewart—to not just eat minutes but actually contribute.
Nebraska is 6-4 on the year with wins in three of its last four games. Two of those have been upsets of ranked teams. In the most recent, a 68-64 road win over 23rd-ranked Michigan State, Brown hit a free throw with two seconds left that all but iced the game.
“I hadn’t shot a free throw all game, and I didn’t shoot a free throw last game, so it had been a while,” Brown said. “But kind of being thrown in that situation, it’s cool to see if you can step up and hit those, and so when I hit that it was a more of a confidence booster, seeing the bench cheer and everything like that. It just builds confidence. I was very nervous going in, but I feel a lot more confident after it.”
Even if she hasn’t felt it, confidence has seemed like a hallmark of Brown’s game to start her Nebraska career.
She doesn’t get sped up on the court. Facing a full-court trap from a desperate opponent, Brown hasn’t looked panicked. She hit a pair of 3s against 15th-ranked Northwestern in Nebraska’s 65-63 win that came within 30 seconds of each other in the second quarter. She looks confident stepping into her shot.
Credit to her teammates for that, she says.
“I feel comfortable coming on the court because I know obviously people are going to make mistakes but I know (teammates) are there to pick me back up,” Brown said. “I think it’s the best feeling to just know that I have those supportive teammates. They’re a big reason why I feel so comfortable coming on the court.”
Sam Haiby, a junior guard and Nebraska’s leading scorer, has been a major help to Brown’s game, teaching her how to play as a combo guard. And Kate Cain, NU’s center, has been a major help as well. “She’s the mom of the team,” Brown said. Cain helps organize and direct on defense.
The pace of the game can usually be the biggest challenge for first-year players, and that tends to manifest itself on defense early on. Freshmen struggle with knowing their assignment and matching up with players more physical and athletic than what they’re used to.
For the most part, though, Brown feels like her AAU ball before college helped ease that transition.
“Obviously the girls I was playing went off to college, too, and are playing at a high level,” she said. “I was worried coming in what it was going to be like, what the games were going to be like.”
When she was going through the recruitment process, Brown was expecting more of a wait-and-grow first year at Nebraska as opposed to the “key rotation player right away” role she’s had. “I knew coming in, something that I’ve grown up with that my parents have taught me is just bringing that energy,” she said.
While that’s been important, there have been games where Brown and Stewart were the only available Huskers off the bench. They’ve needed to actually contribute. In practice, Brown hears a question often from Nebraska assistant coach Chuck Love: “Two plus two, what is it?”
Everybody knows the answer to that question, right? You don’t even have to think about it. Don’t think, just answer.
Works on a basketball court when you’re trying to teach short-term memory. Don’t think, just do. Don’t overthink your shot, don’t worry about the one before it, just let it fly. “Same rotation, same shot form and everything, and the ball’s gonna go in,” Brown says. “You just gotta believe it.”
She might very well play an even bigger role Saturday when the Huskers host 15th-ranked Ohio State. Forward Issie Bourne, Nebraska’s second-leading scorer on the year, is questionable for the game (ankle). Quite the whirlwind first year for Brown.
She’s been up to the task so far, though.