It was like an avalanche that rained down on San Jose State Saturday afternoon inside Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraska’s interior bigs dominated both ends of the floor, the freshmen shined, the inside presence opened up outside shots and when the second half began the shots kept hitting regardless of who was throwing them up. Instead of grinding to a close finish, Nebraska (4-5) pulled away for its second-largest win of the Amy Williams era, a 96-63 victory over the Spartans.
“I guess they call it a streak when you get a couple in a row,” Williams joked in the postgame. The Huskers now have back-to-back wins for the first time all season. “We’ll take it. Our girls are feeling really good to be going into finals week next week off a couple of wins. There were some things that were highlighted that we can continue to build on but there were some good things.”
Like Nebraska’s two keys to the game heading in? The Huskers wanted to control the boards and dominate inside against a smaller San Jose State team, perhaps the smallest they’ve played all season.
Well, Nebraska dominated the glass 56-28. It controlled the offensive boards 22-6 and won the second-chance battle 27-0. Points in the paint? Nebraska won that too, 56-22. Interior play has been an emphasis all season and Nebraska was at its best Saturday.
It was a six-point game after 10 minutes and an eight-point Nebraska lead at halftime. Both teams were shooting sub-30 percent from the field, neither team had made a free throw and there weren’t a ton of transition opportunities.
“After halftime we wanted to just keep pushing,” center Kate Cain said. “We didn’t want to let up what we had. We know we had open shots and kept pushing the ball.”
The message from Williams to her team: “Just don’t let up.” Against Colorado on Thursday, San Jose State’s 3-point shooting kept them within striking distance of a very similar type of game. Williams wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
“We talked at halftime and set some goals about limiting the number of made 3s they got in the second half,” she said.
And instead of the Spartans’ shooting keeping the game close, Nebraska’s shooting blew it open.
The Huskers got hot — like Elmo_Surrounded_By_Fire.GIF hot — from the field and ran away with things. They hit seven of their first 10 shots of the third, including 4-of-6 from deep, fueled by sophomore wing Taylor Kissinger, who had nine of her 17 points in the first 4:11 of the third. She finished the game with five made triples, three assists and two steals.
A 28-23 third turned into a 34-14 fourth. Over the final 20 minutes, the Huskers hit 27 of their 41 shots, good for 65.8 percent. The Spartans shot 41.9 percent.
“We got into a little bit more of a rhythm there,” Williams said. “It’s kind of been, for whatever reason, a while since we’ve played extensively against zone defense and sometimes that happens. It takes a little time to get back into rhythm even though in practice we’ve been prepping for zone and preparing for zone. I think just getting into that flow and then in the second half when we were a little more comfortable, we shot it better.”
Shooting was just one of the eye-opening things happening on the court, though. A top-25 recruiting class carrying Nebraska to the finish line was the other.
The four-woman class had 40 of Nebraska’s 96 points. Guard Leigha Brown went for a career-high 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting. She was getting open look after open look and wasn’t hesitating to pull the trigger. Her 18 points was a game-high and yet she was overshadowed by her teammate in the center of everything, Ashtyn Veerbeek.
Veerbeek had her first career double-double, with 14 points and 14 rebounds in 17 minutes of work. She was on the floor for loose balls — Cain joked, “You can tell she used to play volleyball” — she was in the paint banging around and opening up shooters like Brown and Kissinger on the outside.
Cain, who Veerbeek spells at the center spot, had her own double-double with 16 points and 17 boards. Both members of Nebraska’s one-two punch at center had their best all-around games of the season and that might be the best way to describe why this freshman class as a whole is flourishing for the Huskers.
“We’ve expected that they’re all capable of that,” Williams said. “The best thing we’re learning is just what I’ve kind of known all along, our team has just embraced them as capable contributing members. We’ve got upperclassmen who are helping them shine a little bit and underclassmen who are stepping in and not being afraid to step in and make plays.
“I think that’s a really good recipe and sometimes it takes a little while to get that chemistry worked in but certainly once that happens, some special things can happen.”
Cain credits Veerbeek for pushing her. Veerbeek credits Cain for getting her ready for the college game.
“It was a definite shock when I got here having to go against Kate Cain,” Veerbeek said. “In high school, I could just drop step and overpower people because I was so much bigger but then I got stuffed at the rim multiple times.”
Against the Spartans, Veerbeek had everything from up-and-unders to face-up jumpers.
“Ashtyn talks about it all the time, about when she first got here, those first couple months she’s like, ‘let’s just say I think I’ve learned a little bit more creative ways to not get the ball coming back in my mouth,’” Williams said. “Kate’s shot-blocking ability has made Ashtyn a lot more creative and explosive.”
It also gave Nebraska a center rotation that does no favors for opposing teams. Cain works low and gobbles up rebounds while Veerbeek stretches bigs out to the elbows and beyond.
“It feels like we’ve got a couple very good, very talented players that just complement each other very well,” Williams said.
A combined 30 points, 31 rebounds and four blocked shots would agree.
Nebraska will have a week off as it goes through class finals. The Huskers will have a chance to get back to .500 on Dec. 15 against Denver inside Pinnacle Bank Arena.