Nebraska women’s basketball will take on Illinois at home on Thursday, marking the first of two February matchups with the challenging conference foe.
The Huskers took down the Illini twice last season, but the opposition looks much different now. Head coach Shauna Green has turned the program completely around in her first year with the team, having already clinched Illinois’ first winning season in a decade.
Illinois is 18-6 on the year, projected as a tournament team and was ranked in the AP Top 25 for a few weeks. The team has four double-digit scorers, the top two being transfers and averaging 33.1 points per game. The Illini’s signature win came against Iowa, and they’ve played close games against Indiana and Ohio State.
“It’s a whole new-look Illinois team,” Husker head coach Amy Williams said on her radio show Tuesday. “There’s a reason why they’ve been ranked in the top 25 and receiving votes most of the season.”
The pair of matchups could have serious implications for both teams. Nebraska is likely on the tournament bubble at the moment, and two of its other four remaining opponents are top-15 teams. Illinois is currently projected to be a nine-seed, and the Illini still don’t have the greatest résumé. The impressive win over the Hawkeyes is their only win over a team in the projected tournament picture, with a victory over Michigan State being the next most noteworthy. One of their six losses was to Delaware, a team just outside the top 150 in the NET rankings.
Of course, they still appear as a strong team that can give the Huskers problems. Illinois is one of three Big Ten teams that has a scoring offense and defense ranking in the top six of the conference. The Illini are the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten and top-10 in the nation, hitting 37.7% of their 19.2 shots per game from beyond the arc.
Makira Cook, Genesis Bryant, Adalia McKenzie and Kendall Bostic all average double-digit points and have each recorded at least one double-digit game on the season. Bostic leads the Big Ten in rebounding, averaging a double-double on the year. She’ll match up with Alexis Markowski, who has put up 11 double-doubles this season for the Huskers.
Isabelle Bourne could also be a major factor in the frontcourt. She’s averaging 17.3 points over the past three games, leading the team in scoring for the last two wins.
The Illini have taken four of their losses in the last seven games, three to ranked teams and one to Purdue. Nebraska’s won two games in a row and three of its last five, but the Huskers have still struggled in some ways as of late. They held 20-point advantages against both Michigan State and Northwestern before having them cut to single-digits in the final quarter.
Key factors in those comeback attempts were free throws and turnovers. The Huskers have given the ball away 50 times across the last two games, shot 60 free throws and allowed 50 free throw attempts. In all categories, those are unusually high numbers for the team.
Whether that will continue against Illinois is yet to be seen, but that level of production from the Illini would be especially odd. They’re in the bottom two of the conference in forcing turnovers, although they don’t give it away often either. They also shoot less free throws than any other team in the Big Ten. Michigan State and Northwestern were much better in those areas.
With six games remaining, at very least splitting the series against Illinois could bode well for Nebraska’s tournament hopes. Either team being swept would put them in a disadvantageous position, especially the Huskers. Tipoff for the first of the two crucial games is at 7 p.m. Thursday.