Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Enter Another Pair of Road Tests, Beginning With No. 9 Virginia Tech

December 01, 2022

Nebraska women’s basketball has another two road challenges this weekend, set up to be a tougher pair of opponents than the team faced two weeks ago. 

The Huskers, sitting at 5-2, will play at No. 9 Virginia Tech on Thursday before taking on No. 20 Maryland on Sunday. The latter will be the third ranked opponent they’ve faced, with the first being No. 20 (currently No. 13) Creighton on Nov. 15.

Nebraska lost to the Bluejays by 26 in Omaha, then followed it up with an 18-point defeat against Drake. The Bulldogs haven’t been ranked this season, but their two losses — both in overtime — are to No. 4 Iowa and a UMass team receiving top 25 votes. 

More recently, the Huskers have won three straight games. Last Tuesday, they beat Tarleton, then won both games at the Puerto Rico Clasico. 

“It was just a great trip,” head coach Amy Williams said. “I thought that it served exactly what we want a tournament like that to do for a team, it gave us incredible shared experiences in a beautiful place, but we just saw great growth out of our group.” 

The first game was a 29-point win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Huskers trailed after the opening quarter, but took control in the second and kept a comfortable double-digit advantage throughout the final half. 

Annika Stewart scored a career-high 23 points, knocking down three 3-pointers in an 8-for-10 shooting performance. 

The next win didn’t come so easily. They faced off against Mississippi State, and while Nebraska led for most of the game, some missed free throws late allowed the Bulldogs to hit a game-tying three to force overtime. 

Williams said the team learned a lot about itself and close-game situations through that matchup, and the leaders stepped up. The most prominent of those leaders in the extra period was Jaz Shelley, who scored 14 consecutive points — including four straight threes — to push the Huskers to a win. 

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before, just that combination of her just taking over and really hunting her shot, but also the rest of our team kind of knowing and recognizing that she had the hot hand and trying to find her and continuing to go back to her,” Williams said. “So I think it was just a combination of some things, and really fun to watch her explode like that and for our team to come out of there with a win.”

Prior to the trip to Puerto Rico, Shelley hadn’t been shooting the ball well, including a 5-of-27 mark from three in the first five games. She’s had a pair of bounce back performances in that regard, just as the team has played better. 

Williams said the team has grown a lot through the first seven games of the year, and continues to do so. The two double-digit losses have been a part of that process as well, and the coach said they’ve put the team in a better position going into this road trip. 

“It has helped prepare us because we know just how difficult it is to go on the road into somebody’s home arena and to knock them off,” she said. “You have to really be sharp and we’ve kind of learned from some of the failures and mistakes that were made when we were on those last really difficult road trips.” 

More specifically, Williams said the team has to play better defensively, staying locked into the game plan on that side of the court for the full game. The issues have been “a mix of things,” including matching up in transition defense and defending ball screens.

In Puerto Rico, she said the team played better in that area, and the hot offensive stretches were a byproduct.  

Defense will be a key factor Thursday night against the Hokies on both ends. Virginia Tech currently holds the nation’s top defense, allowing just 44.8 points per game and holding opponents to 31.4% shooting. The two Power Five opponents the team has faced have scored 74 and 57 points, however.

The other part will be stopping Virginia Tech’s offense. The Hokies are led by Elizabeth Kitley, the 2022 ACC Player of the Year and Preseason All-American. She’s currently averaging 19.7 points per game on 56.3% shooting to go along with 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

Beyond the 6-foot-6 center, Williams made note of the team’s experience. All but one of the seven Virginia Tech players averaging over 10 minutes per game are seniors or graduate students, the other being a junior. The supporting cast is an accomplished one. 

“There’s five people scoring double figures, they’re the best rebounding team that we’ve faced,” Williams said. “All of those things are what makes them a top 10 team in the country and just a very formidable opponent.”

Kitley is the top player, though, and Husker center Alexis Markowski will likely be the one drawing that matchup. Williams praised the job she did defensively in the Mississippi State game against leading Bulldog scorer Jessika Carter, and expects her to carry that into the next two contests against strong frontcourts. 

Williams is focused on the upcoming game, so she’s yet to dive deep into Maryland, but praised the versatility the Terrapins have. Every player who has played consistently for them is listed as a guard or guard/forward, and they’re led by the 6-foot-3 Diamond Miller.  

The Huskers have never beaten Maryland in their 15 all-time matchups. Winning either of the next two games would be a big deal for Nebraska. The Hokies lost just two games at home last year, while the Terrapins only dropped one. 

Nebraska has had a tough schedule early, with Kansas being another potential challenging nonconference opponent this month as well. The Huskers believe this slate will do them good in the long run, as they play in a strong Big Ten conference which currently has five ranked teams.

“Every night, you have to be ready and sharp and committed to trying to put together as close to 40 minutes as you possibly can,” Williams said. “… That’s what you have to do, ultimately, to win Big Ten Tournaments. That’s the things that have to happen to advance in NCAA Tournaments. For us to get a taste of that and get that experience, we feel like it’s just going to make us stronger.”

Other news

>> Sam Haiby made her season debut against Tarleton last week, returning from a knee injury but playing only six minutes before being helped to the locker room in the third quarter. Williams said her status is currently day-to-day.

“She’s been working hard to get back out there with this group, and we feel like that’s a realistic possibility,” Williams said. “Hopefully, you know, sometime here soon, but we’re going to make sure that we are just being cautious and doing everything the right way and making sure that she’s really ready.”

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