Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Have Tough Challenge Against Naz Hillmon, No. 8 Michigan

January 04, 2022

Ready for a little late-night Big Ten basketball?

The Nebraska women are looking to right the ship following their first defeat of the season as they host the No. 8 Michigan Wolverines tonight at 8 p.m. inside Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Wolverines, coached by Kim Barnes Arico, come into the contest with the same record as the Huskers, 12-1, but have faced tougher competition as their strength of schedule ranks 65th in the country according to realtimerpi.com, while Nebraska’s is 151st.

Still, Nebraska head coach Amy Williams believes that each nonconference opponent her team has played has helped prepare it for the gauntlet that is the Big Ten, one of the best, if not the best, women’s basketball league. The Huskers went 11-0 against non-con opponents, which included highlight wins against rival Creighton and previously unbeaten Wake Forest in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“We feel like our nonconference schedule, a lot of people have kind of talked about that. We’ve had several wins over top-100 NET teams, teams that have won their conference, that have been successful,” Williams said. “What we feel like is, all of those games have pieces that have prepared us for what we’re going to see tomorrow night. Now, maybe all of those pieces are put together a little bit more with Michigan, but you’re playing a top-10 team at home, it’s an incredible opportunity and we feel like there are certain aspects of each one of our non-conference games that have put us in a position to be ready for conference play.”

Nebraska’s defense will be tested against Michigan. The Wolverines are averaging 73.5 points per game, which ranks 61st in the country, but they’ve scored 90-plus points in three of their last five games, including against No. 25 Ohio State and Wisconsin. They also have an overtime win against No. 5 Baylor.

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon is the most dangerous threat to the Huskers. Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, the 6-foot-2 forward is averaging a team-best 20.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. She’s already racked up six double-doubles and is coming off a monster 29-point, 15-rebound outing against Ohio State.

Others will guard her throughout the game, but Husker forward Isabelle Bourne will often be matched up with Hillmon. Those two squared off internationally in the World Championships, Bourne with Australia and Hillmon with Team USA.

“Naz is such a great player that, you’re just happy if you can find a way to slow her down a little,” Williams said. “Issie would take it as a win, and our team would as well, if she (Hillmon) has to take as many shots as possible to get her points. But she’ll probably find a way to put it in the bucket.”

Another Wolverine to watch is Leigha Brown, who’s averaging 15.5 points per game, which is second on the team. Husker basketball fans might remember that name as Brown was the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year in the 2019-20 season while playing for the Huskers. That year she led the team with 14.4 points per game but transferred to Ann Arbor shortly after the season ended. Brown wasn’t able to play against her former team last season due to a positive COVID-19 test when Nebraska traveled to Michigan.

Williams wants to see Nebraska show improvement in rebounding. At Michigan State, the Spartans outrebounded the Huskers by seven. Michigan will come into the game 26th in the country in rebounding margin at 9.2. Nebraska is 33rd with 8.6. Locating and putting a body—or two—on Hillmon might be a key to the Husker game plan.

“Naz is a monster, but I think she attracts so much attention. People are throwing double teams at her, people are really trying to have two people box her out, and that generally leaves some other good complimentary players who are right alongside of her who can be freed up to really help them on the boards,” Williams said. “I think they just have lots of contributions. I think their other post players do a great job of knowing that, ‘I can make a beeline to the basket and a lot of times I’m going to be open because my player might be looking to double or my player might be so concerned about Naz that there’s a free lane to go get rebounds.’ And they have good rebounding guards as well. It’s a tough task.”

Like Nebraska has with Jaz Shelley and Ashley Scoggin, Michigan boasts two lethal 3-point shooters in Maddie Nolan and Danielle Rauch. Nolan is the top shooter behind the arc at 42% (24-of-57) while Rauch is right behind her at 40% (16-of-40). Shelley is the Huskers’ top long-range shooter at 46% (36-of-77) while Scoggin is at 44% (28-of-63).

At Michigan State, Nebraska got a boost from guard Sam Haiby. The Moorhead, Minnesota, native scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds while driving hard to the basket. She was awarded with seven attempts at the free-throw line and made all seven, too.

“I know it was kind of my role a lot last year, was being a little bit more aggressive,” Haiby said. “It’s definitely what I pride myself in, is going to the basket. The outside shots weren’t really falling for anyone (at Michigan State), but as long as I can stay aggressive and go to the rim or find open looks for teammates, I think that’s what’s going to be in the best interest for us going forward.”

Last Friday—the day after the loss to Michigan State—was a day off for the Huskers. But Haiby and other players were still in the gym working on their games.

“It goes to show how much we care. People are getting in the gym after if they feel they didn’t play their best game, which is really good for us as teammates and for the coaches to see that too,” Haiby said. “It just shows the drive and the competitiveness we have to try to bounce back and get the next one.”

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