Huskers Get Crash Course in Closing with 58-54 Loss to Northwestern
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Get Crash Course in Closing with 58-54 Loss to Northwestern

January 25, 2019

Both teams were evenly matched for most of the game; one side star-powered and the other with a production-by-committee approach. This wasn’t a stylistic win or one where a string of things went wrong throughout the night ultimately leading to a loss. “Just a hard-fought Big Ten game,” said Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown.

In the end, it was a few plays late that decided things.

It feels like just another night in the Big Ten, but a 58-54 Nebraska loss also feels like a missed opportunity for head coach Amy Williams.

“This is just a very disappointing loss for us,” Williams said. “I thought, especially there down the stretch, that we had a very good shot to be able to overcome some poor shooting and find a way to steal a game at home and we just didn’t manage things very well in the last minute of the game.

“You can look at it as every single night is a grind, or you can look at it as every single night is an opportunity and I think we had an incredible opportunity right here to continue a winning streak and build on and we missed out on what I would consider a really good opportunity.”

Both teams made runs in the third quarter. For Northwestern, it was a start to the second half that stretched a four-point lead to 10. For Nebraska, it was an 11-1 run that immediately followed to erase the deficit. Northwestern got its lead back to seven with 6:12 remaining in the game, but Nebraska came right back once again. A triple from junior guard Hannah Whitish (12 points to lead the Huskers) with 1:04 remaining tied things at 53-all.

The Huskers were solid in initial defense all night long (though horribly out-performed on the boards, 51-41, which lead to 18 second-chance points) and after Whitish’s 3 to tie, wings Nicea Eliely and Leigha Brown forced a scrum right in front of Northwestern’s bench. Brown poked the ball free, Eliely jumped on it and drew a foul. With the Huskers in the bonus, Eliely went to the line with 37.8 seconds left. A chance for the lead.

That’s where things went wrong.

Eliely split her pair at the line and Northwestern came right back down the floor and scored.

The ball could have gone to either of the Cats’ stars — guard and leading scorer Lindsey Pulliam, who had 21 points on the night, or forward and leading rebounder Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who had a 10-point, 19-rebound double-double that featured 10 offensive boards — but Northwestern elected to go inside. Kunaiyi-Akpanah shot-faked freshman big Ashtyn Veerbeek, creating just enough space to go up and under for an easy lay-in to take the lead right back.

Instead of calling time to advance, Williams let things play out. Freshman guard Sam Haiby drove hard down the right side of the floor before getting walled off near the baseline under the basket.

She ate her dribble. No timeout.

Haiby kicked it to another freshman, Leigha Brown, who immediately caught and rose for a tough, contested jumper from the nail that rimmed out. Northwestern rebounded and made both its free throws for a 57-54 lead with seven seconds left.

“I think that would have been a really good time to be able to call a timeout and get a great execution,” Williams said.

She tried to call time when Haiby was trapped initially but wasn’t heard. Then when the ball was kicked to Brown, Williams called again for a stoppage, but Brown was already in her shooting motion.

Freshmen mistakes, first-year forward Kayla Mershon said. Time-management. Learning lessons for a young team whose youth was relied on down the stretch.

Nebraska had one last shot to tie on a sideline inbounds play but Whitish lofted the ball up towards wing Taylor Kissinger and it was stolen.

“We missed a screen to try and get Taylor open at the top, but we made a soft, nonchalant pass over the top that they stole,” Williams said. “We still had a timeout right there and rather than turn the basketball over, that was a good time to call a second timeout and be able to get us organized.

“Another situation we mismanaged.”

For the most part, Williams liked the offensive looks her team got. In the first half, Nebraska generated open 3s off ball reversals. Kissinger, who entered the day leading women’s basketball in 3-point shooting at 49 percent, shot 1-for-6 from range. Eliely was 0-for-5. As a team, the Huskers shot 29 percent from the field, a season-low by a mile. To be fair, neither team shot it well (Northwestern was at 36 percent) but Nebraska’s cold night wasn’t a product of limited opportunity.

She could have chalked that up to a night that just wasn’t Nebraska’s. But Williams wasn’t interested in moral victories. The rebounding clearly bothered her. “I don’t really care how special she is,” Williams said of Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s 10 offensive boards, “that’s probably not taking care of business.” She didn’t like the on-ball defense on the perimeter, didn’t like the aggressiveness of her team in box-out situations and didn’t like the close.

But there is a bright spot to all of it. Nebraska relied on youth to close the game. And that youth just got a crash course in how not to do things.

“There’s going to be good learning for all our young kids,” Williams said.

Haiby — who had four points on 1-of-7 shooting — was afforded the ability to do the exact same thing late in the Huskers’ previous game. In a 63-57 win against Minnesota, she converted. On Thursday night, she came up short. It happens. But, Williams said, she still has the green light to attack.

The loss snaps what was a two-game hot stretch for the Huskers, who fall back under .500 at 9-10, and puts them at 4-4 in the conference. They’ll need to regroup quickly, though, as a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, and a date with the Badgers (10-10, 1-7 Big Ten) looms on Sunday. Tip is set for 2 p.m. CT.

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