Two days. That was the amount of practice time the Huskers had to rep a three-forward lineup that would prove to be the starting five in Thursday night’s Big Ten opener against Illinois.
Issie Bourne, a sophomore who didn’t play much out on the perimeter her first year, started on the wing, replacing injured guard Trinity Brady. Bella Cravens, a transfer four from Eastern Washington this offseason, took Bourne’s spot at the four. Kate Cain, as has been the case all four of her years now in Lincoln, held down the center spot.
Took some time to get used to things in-game, but as things wore on and the game tightened, that three-forward lineup absolutely ate Illinois’ lunch. Nebraska swallowed drives with Cain altering shots and Cravens cleaning up everything. Bourne was more than adequate defending on the perimeter.
Nebraska walked away with a 78-72 win over the Illini (2-2) to open its season 3-0.
And oh by the way, junior guard Sam Haiby poured in a career-high 33 points to pace Nebraska.
“This team has embraced wanting to handle the curveball,” head coach Amy Williams said after.
Would Williams prefer to use Bourne out on the wing? Maybe not. The Aussie sophomore once again showcased deft footwork in the paint on a handful of occasions; she went up and under, she spun over her left shoulder into a fallaway jumper from the free throw line, and she just generally worked whoever was guarding her.
Haiby had 33 to lead all scorers, but Bourne’s 21—on 8-of-13 no less—was the second-best scoring performance of the game.
But she only took one triple, and she misfired. This will be a work in progress.
Brady, Williams said, is day-to-day with a lower leg injury. Nebraska lost her late in its win over Idaho State last Sunday.
It then lost guard Makenzie Helms on Wednesday to the transfer portal.
Add to that the fact Texas Tech transfer guard Nailah Dillard has been unavailable for each of the first three contests and Cal transfer guard MiCole Cayton (knee) has dressed but doesn’t appear ready to make her debut yet. Williams is pretty hamstrung at the guard spots.
Haiby played 34 of a possible 40 minutes. Ashley Scoggin, the starting point guard, played 31. Freshman Whitney Brown gave 15 strong minutes off the bench (five points, plus-7) and fellow first-year guard Ruby Porter saw 22 minutes. But that was it.
If Brady misses extended time, this three-forward lineup might become something Williams leans on.
“Each day we played with that lineup with Kate and Bella and Issie on the court, we got a little more comfortable with how we could play to our strengths and be versatile in that lineup,” Williams said. “
Credit the three ladies for making it work.
“It was another curveball thrown at us,” Cravens said. “I thought we did well. I thought the communication was there. The way one through three defends the ball is different from the four and five, so I thought we talked that really well and worked well together on the court when there were three forwards.”
Cravens had a career-high 16 rebounds. Cain was held scoreless through the first three quarters and didn’t secure her first rebound of the game until very late in the third, but her impact on the defensive end was undeniable.
Illinois shot 43% from the field in the first half. The two exchanged runs that kept things tight. Neither side had more than a two-possession lead until the free throw game began in the final minute.
Illinois shot just 28% in the second half though.
“How many challenged shots did (Cain) have?” Williams posed. “She really forced misses for Bella and her crew to come in and sweep up a rebound here and there.”
On the other end, Haiby was going berserk. She had eight of Nebraska’s last 11 points in the game, and 10 of her 33 in the fourth.
In fact, 21 of her points came in the game’s final 20 minutes. She took 11 of her 16 free throws in the second half.
“She kind of settled in. Early they were doing some trapping off ball-screen actions that we hadn’t really seen out of them in their first three ball games,” Williams said. “Once we adjusted to how they were playing, I thought she made some great reads, really changed her pace, was kind of able to re-attack off screens and get herself to the free throw line.”
Williams thought she played with great pace and poise. “She’s dangerous,” Williams said. Illinois hedged hard when Haiby tried to come off screens. She hit a 3 late in the second quarter that maybe helped to open things up just a tad.
But once Nebraska came out for the second half, Haiby was patient and probed. She picked her spots well and the results showed.
Haiby said she once shot 25 free throws in a high school game before, so 16 isn’t something new. It ain’t common, though, and Nebraska would certainly welcome it if Haiby could consistently produce at the level she did Thursday night.
Nebraska didn’t shoot particularly well (40%), but everyone who played scored. They came in timely moments, too.
Brown had a triple just moments after Illinois stretched out a five-point second-quarter lead.
Cain got her first points of the night at the free throw line with just under three minutes to play. She sank both to tie the game at 67-all, and it was those foul shots that keyed an 11-0 Nebraska run to take control of the game for good.
“Contributions all over the place,” Williams said, “and that’s what it’s going to take for this team to keep getting better.”
It’s a good start to league play, and, frankly, a good start to a very unique and unprecedented season. The team goal is to adapt to the curveball. Nebraska got another one this week. It seemed to adapt just fine.
Next up is a trip to Omaha to face Creighton on Monday, Dec. 14. The game will close out the short nonconference schedule for the Huskers. It’ll tip at 5 p.m. CT with local coverage on NET.