On Tuesday, Nebraska women’s basketball picked up its fourth Big Ten win six games into conference play, surpassing last season’s total of three. The Huskers (13-6, 4-2) knocked off No. 20 Iowa 74-65 at Pinnacle Bank Arena, securing their first win over a top-25 opponent under Coach Amy Williams.
Year one under Williams was a nightmare as the Huskers went 8-22 overall and 3-13 in league play. Further complicating matters, star center Jess Shepard, a local product out of Fremont High School, decided to transfer and take her 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game with her.
Heading into this season, 5-foot-9 sophomore Hannah Whitish was the team’s top returning scorer after putting up 9.0 points per game as a freshman. Nicea Eliely and Jasmine Cincore were the only other two returners who averaged more than five points last season.
With that being the case,a 13-6 start in year two can be classified as “ahead of schedule” for Williams in Lincoln and it’s a result of both an infusion of talent and significant improvement by those already in the program.
The Big Red resurgence began with Williams’ 2017 recruiting class, a two-woman haul with plenty of star power.
Taylor Kissinger, a 6-foot-1 guard from Minden (Neb.) High School, was a top-40 recruit and 5-star prospect according to espnW’s HoopGurlz rankings who grew up wanting to be a Husker. The sharp-shooter has struggled with injuries early in her career — missing six games — but is averaging 11.8 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 38.4 percent from 3 when she does take the court. Kissinger is the team’s second-leading scorer as a true freshman and has already posted a 25-point performance this season.
Kissinger struggled a bit with her shot against the Hawkeyes, finishing 3-of-11 from the field, but still contributed 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench and the Huskers were plus-11 in her 24 minutes on the floor.
Williams also landed a late steal in 4-star, top-100 center Kate Cain who originally signed with Delaware but received a release from her letter of intent following a coaching change. She chose Nebraska over Syracuse, Seton Hall and West Virginia in late June, helping to soften the blow of losing Shepard. The 6-foot-5 post has started every game but one this season and is averaging 10.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks.
Kain fouled out with six points, three rebounds and five blocks while battling against Iowa’s star junior post Megan Gustafson who is second in the league in scoring and first in rebounding.
The freshmen have been key, but equally as important has been the leap Whitish made. The native of Barneveld, Wisconsin, established herself as the team’s best 3-point shooter as a freshman, knocking down 40.7 percent of her looks from deep. This year she’s emerged as a dynamic all-around point guard, leading the team in points, assists and 3-pointers as well as contributing on the glass. Whitish is averaging 14.0 points, 5.3 assists (third in the Big Ten) and 4.1 rebounds while maintaining her excellent 3-point percentage (39.8) despite an expanded offensive role.
She had 18 points, five assists and four rebounds against the Hawkeyes on Tuesday.
Perhaps the most improved player on the team, however, is Maddie Simon. The Lincoln Pius X product struggled to find her place last season, shooting 32.5 percent from the field in 12.7 minutes per game. This year, however, the junior forward is averaging 10.9 points (a 6.8 points-per-game increase from last year) and shooting 44.2 percent from the field. The 6-foot-1 forward is also second on the team with 5.8 rebounds per game.
Simon led the Huskers with 19 points on Tuesday while shooting 3-of-4 from deep.
With four double-digit scorers leading the way and a quality cast of role players like Cincore, Eliely and 3-point sniper Emily Wood, Williams has a team on her hands that can compete in the Big Ten.
Look no further than Nebraska’s previous game, a 69-64 overtime loss to No. 23 Michigan on Saturday that easily could have ended as a win in regulation if not for a controversial foul call on what looked to be a 3-pointer blocked cleanly by Eliely that put the Wolverines at the free-throw line to tie the game and send it into overtime. Nebraska’s only other Big Ten loss came to Ohio State who is tied at the top of the Big Ten standings at 5-1.
Next up is Nebraska’s third straight ranked opponent as the Huskers will head to No. 25 Rutgers (17-3, 5-1) for a 5 p.m. tipoff.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way for the Huskers this season, Amy Williams is already ahead of schedule and has proven that she has the Huskers headed in the right direction.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.