Nebraska fought in the second half, but a second consecutive poor defensive effort on the road ended in a second consecutive loss, this time 78-62 at the hands of Rutgers.
In games where they hold their opponents under 70 points, the Huskers are 8-1 on the season. Nebraska plays best when plodding up and down the court, emphasizing post touches for center Kate Cain and making opponents grind through full possessions to get a decent look at the cup.
You won’t get to run against the Huskers when they’re playing the way they want to play, and you’ll have to worry about lead guard Sam Haiby stabbing your heart with a dagger of some kind at the end.
That’s how NU beat Rutgers at home a month ago. Nebraska held the explosive Arella Guirantes to just eight points on 3-of-24 shooting, and the RU offense to 50. Head coach Amy Williams said after the game she knew it’d take a stout defensive performance, but she didn’t dream of one as strong as NU got that day.
The Scarlet Knights wouldn’t play again until Sunday. The program sat more than 30 days while suffering through COVID-19 issues and health and safety protocols, postponing eight games in the process.
They jumped all over Nebraska to start, opening up a 22-10 lead after the first quarter. Rutgers had more energy, trapping and pressing Nebraska up and down the court. Diamond Johnson and Tekia Mack powered the offense with a brilliant inside-out game.
Cain played a total of 20 minutes and only took four shots. Even when NU got the desired switch to put the smaller Guirantes (5-11, Cain stands 6-5) on her in the post, Nebraska couldn’t find ways to feed her inside.
At the other end, Rutgers switched Mack onto Cain, gave it to her in the corners, and then let her go to work.
At the end of the first half, Johnson and Mack had combined for 30 of Rutgers’ 43 points. Collectively, they were 11-for-15 shooting the ball, and 5-for-8 from beyond the arc.
Rutgers matched its point total from the Jan. 3 meeting after just 24 minutes of game clock. Johnson splashed shots of the dribble from the perimeter and Mack used deft footwork inside to punish anyone and everyone who tried to guard her.
That duo finished with 48 points on 18-of-27 shooting. Johnson hit four triples.
Instead of being able to play inside-out, Nebraska had to hunt shots from the perimeter. Wayward shots and forced turnovers (it had 19 total) were the result. With 3:58 to play in the third quarter, Nebraska trailed by 18.
But then freshman forward Annika Stewart splashed back-to-back triples within 40 seconds of each other and, for a moment, it looked like the Huskers might be able to climb back into the game.
NU embarked on a 12-2 run just before the end of the third quarter to cut the deficit to eight. Guirantes knocked down a mid-range jumper on Rutgers’ final possession to stem the tide and send the game to the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead intact, but Nebraska at least looked threatening.
NU couldn’t get stops to open the fourth, though. For the first five minutes, it just exchanged buckets, the margin hovering right around 10. The defense in games past has afforded Nebraska the ability to run through stretches of offensive struggles with minimal damage, but not Sunday. Over the next three minutes, Nebraska committed three turnovers and only got up one shot attempt (it was blocked), and Rutgers stretched the lead back to 15. Out of reach.
For Nebraska, a manageable road trip now turns to a grueling home stand. Penn State and Rutgers both had their own sets of problems, and with NU floating just outside the NCAA Tournament bubble, a pair of wins would have given some margin for error.
Instead, Nebraska has dropped to 9-7 and 7-6 in the conference. This upcoming week, it’ll host Iowa (10-5, 6-5 Big Ten) on Wednesday and then Maryland (13-2, 9-1 Big Ten) on Sunday.
A return to defensive form will be needed.
Stewart had 12 off the bench (on 5-of-6 shooting), guard Ashley Scoggin added 10, and Haiby bounced back from a rough outing against Penn State with 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting (3-4 3P) to power the Huskers, but Rutgers shot 49% from the floor and 40% from 3.
When the Husker defense gives up at least 70 points this season, they’re 1-6.
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.