Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game between eighth-seed Nebraska and the No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs inside the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville wasn’t for the faint of heart.
Nothing came easy for the Huskers, especially close to the hoop, which at times resembled a heavyweight boxing fight with both parties trading haymakers. The Zags, however, dealt out more blows and handled the physicality better than Nebraska. Gonzaga outscored the Huskers 32-18 in the paint and outrebounded them 40-33. Those two stats help tell the story of what turned out to be a 68-55 season-ending loss for Big Red.
With the defeat, Nebraska finishes its season with an overall record of 24-9. It had an 11-8 mark against Big Ten opponents.
When Nebraska is on its game, it’s usually running rim to rim and playing fast. That didn’t happen on Friday due to Gonzaga’s full-court pressure and tough half-court defense.
“When they put their press on, it took away some of our pace and we were a little choppy offensively with that,” Nebraska head coach Amy Williams told the Huskers Radio Network after the game. “We needed to do a better job of staying in attack mode with their pressure defense.”
Said guard Sam Haiby, who scored a team-high 20 points: “I think their press was what kind of set us off the most. It just slowed us down, we like to play with a lot of pace. But I think they did a really good job of just slowing us down just enough to be able to take us out of rhythm and take us out of the shots we wanted to get in the paint.”
The referees allowed a physical game to happen, and the Zags were the ones that adjusted to the no-calls in the paint. Gonzaga led 33-30 at halftime and outscored Nebraska 16-6 in paint and held a 21-15 advantage in rebounds. The Huskers weren’t making their shots near the rim, either, going 3-of-7 in layups and only 6-of-13 at the free-throw line. Nebraska’s main post players—Alexis Markowski, Isabelle Bourne and Bella Cravens—went a combined 1-of-9 from the floor in the first half.
Those numbers needed to be better in the second half, but the trend never changed for the better. Nebraska went 8-of-25 on layups for the game and shot 58% (10-of-17) at the charity stripe. The true freshman Markowski, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, went 3-of-6 at the line while Bourne, who ended with six points and five boards, went 1-of-4.
What saved the Huskers from having a larger deficit at halftime was their 3-point shooting—they went 6-of-12 from behind the arc in the first half. Haiby and Jaz Shelley both made two triples while Mi’Cole Cayton and Kendall Moriarty each made one. The second half was a different story from deep, though, as Nebraska made three of its 10 3-point attempts.
Haiby, a fourth-year player and one of the leaders of the team, went 2-for-4 from 3 and 6-of-7 at the free-throw line. She also collected a team-best three steals and attended the postgame press conference with a bag of ice taped around her right shoulder.
“She (Haiby) played so hard and was aggressive and was really trying to create a lot of offense for herself and for her teammates,” Williams said. “I thought it was a heck of a way for her to perform in her first NCAA Tournament.”
Shelley scored 11 points with four assists and made three 3s, but battled foul trouble for much of the game. The Moe, Australia, native sat on the bench with four fouls during key moments late in the third and early in the fourth. Gonzaga had a pair of 7-0 runs in the third that helped it stretch its lead.
“You’re trying to manage and juggle foul trouble,” Williams said. “It’s just an interesting thing, trying to manage the physicality of the game, and yet still having players in foul trouble.”
Nebraska needed a big second half, but didn’t get it. Gonzaga outscored Big Red 21-13 in the third and 14-12 in the fourth. The Zags shot 46% from the field while their defense held the Huskers to just 32% and 23 points below their season average.
“We came here to win this game and to advance in the tournament, so really disappointed,” Williams said. “Disappointed at the loss and disappointed that we feel like we’re better than we showed. Mostly disappointed that it’s over. It’s been a really special group, I’m incredibly proud of the season we’ve had. Just sad and disappointed that this group, it’s over for us.”
Gonzaga, a veteran group that has two redshirt seniors, two traditional seniors and a junior in its starting lineup, was led by Kayleigh Truong, an impressive 5-foot-9 guard from Houston. The junior showed her toughness when she had to leave the game in the second quarter after hitting her head on the court following a hard collision with Shelley. Truong returned in the second half, scoring 15 of her 20 points.
Another player that stung the Huskers was Melody Kempton, a 6-1 forward from Idaho. The smooth-moving senior scored 14 points on 7-of-12 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds.
At times, it looked like Nebraska was the inexperienced team, unsure of itself on the NCAA Tournament stage. Williams said the team will use that to improve.
“I think we can use that as something that can really benefit our program moving forward,” Williams said. “When we think about it, Jaz Shelley being the only player on our team that had any experience of playing in a NCAA Tournament, so even though we have some veteran players and some experienced players, none of them having the experience of playing here in the NCAA Tournament. So it’s something that we’re going to definitely learn from and use to propel and fuel our program moving forward.”