Photo Credit: John Peterson

Huskers Begin Final Month of Season With Matchup Against Michigan State

February 01, 2023

The final month of Nebraska women’s basketball’s regular season has arrived. 

The Huskers enter February with a 12-9 record, continuing to live on the inside edge of the projected NCAA Tournament bubble. This may not be where they expected to be at the start of the year, but that might still be considered an accomplishment given their 2-6 record over the last eight games. 

Nebraska’s officially made it through a January gauntlet which included losses to four top-10 opponents and a road win against Purdue — another projected tournament team. 

While the remaining schedule may be relatively lighter, it’s not easy. The eight-game February slate is highlighted by matchups with another two ranked foes in No. 18 Michigan and No. 6 Iowa. Beyond that, there’s two tests against a recently-ranked Illinois team, along with the Huskers’ next game — a home battle against Michigan State on Thursday. 

The Spartans, with a record of 11-10, may not be ranked or a tournament team at the moment. However, they’re just two spots behind Nebraska in the NET rankings, and a game behind in the conference standings. They handed No. 4 Indiana its only loss so far this season and narrowly fell to No. 10 Ohio State and Iowa. 

Michigan State also has struggled to get in the win column recently, losing five of its last six games. Four of those losses were to teams ranked at the time of the games, with the outlier being a loss to Wisconsin. 

Nebraska’s biggest challenge on Thursday could be slowing down Michigan State’s offense. The Spartans average 80 points per game, a mark that lands No. 15 in the nation and fourth-best in the Big Ten. Guard Kamaria McDaniel is leading the team in scoring with 14.6 points per game on somewhat inefficient shooting percentages, but the team has six available players averaging over seven points per game. Matilda Ekh is also a major threat, averaging 12.5 points and shooting 38.9% from three on over six attempts per game from long range.

It’ll also be worth watching how often Michigan State gets to the free throw line. The team is tied for first in the Big Ten in free throw attempts per game, although it’s last in the conference in percentage from the stripe. Iowa is the other team at the top, having just shot 22 free throws against Nebraska.

The Huskers have held each of the top three scoring teams in the conference below their respective averages, but came up short against each. Nebraska has yet to win this season when its opponent scores over 70 points in regulation. If it can’t hold the Spartans well below their usual scoring total — something multiple teams have been able to accomplish against them — it’ll need to step up offensively.

Michigan State’s defense sits around the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, but one thing it has done well is force turnovers. It forces 21 per game, third in the Big Ten.

Nebraska’s offensive production has been spread out as of late. Jaz Shelley is shooting 22.8% since Jan. 1, but is still averaging a team-leading 12.8 points per game and 6.5 assists. Her and the rest of the starting lineup have all scored in double-digits in at least three of the last five games. The closest thing to a recent standout performance would be Alexis Markowski’s 19 points in the win over Purdue. A showing similar to that may be necessary for the Huskers against Michigan State. 

Spartans head coach Suzy Merchant’s status for Thursday is not known. She was released from the hospital earlier this week after a minor one-car crash due to a medical incident took place Saturday. Associate head coach Dean Lockwood served in her place in the team’s recent game against Illinois.

Thursday night’s matchup will be an important one for both teams, and a loss could put Nebraska on the wrong side of the tournament bubble. The Huskers surely would like to start the month off well, and carry that momentum down the stretch.

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