Leadership interns, that’s what Amy Williams is calling three of her returning Huskers.
Senior center Kate Cain, junior guard Sam Haiby, and sophomore forward Issie Bourne figure to be three of Husker women’s basketball’s most relied-upon ladies this upcoming season. This is a team with seven new faces after a few graduations from the starting lineup and a few unexpected transfers.
“They’ve been spending a lot of time working on their leadership skills and trying to become better,” Williams said recently of Cain, Haiby, and Bourne.
Haiby is NU’s leading returning scorer; in just under 26 minutes a night last season she averaged 10 points a game. This season she’ll have a pick-and-roll partnership of which to build everything else off of with Cain, NU’s all-time leader in blocked shots and a fantastic screen-setter.
Throughout the 2019 season, Haiby played off of then-senior point guard Hannah Whitish. Their games fit about as well offensively as you could hope for—Haiby loves to attack off the dribble and around a series of screens while Whitish was an absolute marksman as a spot-up shooter or an off-the-catch shooter—and the senior was willing to give a little to the up-and-comer.
The secondary storyline was right there to see as the season played out: what was Whitish’s team to lead for a number of years was going to soon become Haiby’s. As things wore on, Haiby got more and more license to run the offense; she’d learned how to facilitate from Whitish and in playing off Whitish’s game, started to hone a jumper.
In a bench role as a freshman, Haiby averaged exactly 10 points in 21 minutes a night, but she shot 31% from 3 and averaged 2.6 assists. Last season, the assists took a climb to 3.3 a night and her shooting jumped to 36.4%.
Haiby spent time in the lab between her freshman and sophomore years working with Ashtyn Veerbeek, her primary pick-and-roll partner that first year, to stretch her game and shoot it more consistently. She (5-foot-9) had the 6-foot-2 Veerbeek contest triples and try to run her off her spots.
“I’m really excited about the direction Sam is taking,” Williams told me. “She works really hard, and she’s just learning more and more about how to impact the team as a whole and not just try to make herself better. She’s always been a hard worker, but now just finding ways to carry that throughout our whole team.”
Cain has a steadying presence about her. She’s played a lot of basketball for Nebraska. It feels natural that she would be occupying a leadership space in her final year, because she’s been here before. Nebraska was in a similar position entering the 2018 season, and Cain worked hard to help a freshman Veerbeek play her understudy off the bench.
Last year, that role belonged to Bourne.
The Australia native has a much more traditional repertoire of post moves, so it’ll be interesting to see if she moves into Nebraska’s starting lineup with the transfers of Veerbeek (a starter alongside Cain in 2019) and Kayla Mershon. Veerbeek had to stretch her game more last year as Cain really needs a heavy dose of 4-out sets to find space in the post. But Bourne made only nine of her 42 looks from deep in her first year (21%).
Running a pick-and-roll with her and Haiby is a fine place to start, but spacing becomes tricky in a hurry.
The medical retirement of Taylor Kissinger further muddies that end of the floor for Nebraska.
“Taylor Kissinger has a very unique and special talent. Her ability to get that 3-point shot off very quickly and set her feet quickly was special,” Williams said. “In no way, shape, or form are we expecting anybody to step in and say, “OK, we have to try and replace Taylor with that.’ We think just team effort, trying to overwhelmingly become a better shooting team at every position will help us to be able to soften the blow a little bit there.”
Williams credited continued work from Haiby on her jumper this offseason, along with returning sophomore guards Trinity Brady and Makenzie Helms.
Additionally, Williams secured transfers this offseason from guards Ashley Scoggin (40% shooter in 2019) and Nailah Dillard (35% her first year at Texas Tech) to help in the shooting department. “Maybe we won’t have that one prolific shooter like Taylor,” she said, “but collectively we can put it together as a team and try to fill that hole.”
But Williams has time to work things out.
And she’s got a team eager to get to work.
“We have a lot of new kids who are just hungry to reach out and be led by those three individuals. I think that’s been the most exciting thing,” she said. “They’re just very eager to be here and excited to be Huskers and just extra excited to get after it.”
Last week, the NCAA Division I Council voted to make Nov. 25 the official start date for men’s and women’s basketball. Schedules are still being sorted out, but practice for the season can begin on Oct. 14. Nebraska can move to a normal, in-season 20-hour-a-week model on that date.
Until then, and beginning earlier this week, Nebraska and other programs moved into a ramp-up period.
Before Sept. 21, programs were limited to eight hours a week of practice time, four of which could be spent on the court and four with strength training. On Tuesday of this past week, that time allotment bumped to 12 hours a week.
Through Oct. 13, Nebraska will be able to work eight hours a week on the basketball court. It’s a gradual step up in activity, but a necessary period after a stop-and-start offseason.
“Our kids are not quite in season form by any stretch, but are certainly kind of working up towards that and gradually, with the help of our incredible Nebraska athletic performance staff and our strength and conditioning coach and athletic trainer we’ve been working very diligently to kind of build up safely for our student-athletes when they’ve been away from competition as much as we have,” Williams said.
The goal for these next 20-ish days will be just to get student-athletes physically ready to hit the ground running when Oct. 14 rolls around and practices can begin in full.
“Just making sure that physically and mentally (players can) handle the rigors—the jumping, the planting, the turning, all the things your ligaments and joints maybe haven’t had as much experience with over the last several months or through the COVID pandemic,” Williams said. “But I think in addition to that our team has quite a few new faces, so just getting to know each other, learn each other a little bit and understand strengths and weaknesses, those are things that we’re just trying to put in place for that 14th of October.”
Seeing the finish line for a longer-than-normal offseason and the starting point of the new season has been a welcome sight.
“It’s fantastic. It’s hard not to get a smile on your face when you can see that on the horizon, although we know there are a lot of things we have to stay diligent with in order for that to actually come to fruition,” she said. “There are still a lot of things to work out as far as the specifics of schedule and things like that, but to have that on the horizon and for our girls to be able to have a date circled and start our playing segment and practice season, that’s pretty special. I think it gives us a little shot in the arm.”
Until the season gets underway, Williams will rely on her leadership interns to keep the team headed in the right direction. Upon arrival, we’ll see what this version of Nebraska basketball has in store.
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.