Things looked rough in the first half. Nebraska was shooting 35 percent from the floor and Wisconsin was shooting 41. Not that the Badgers were scorching the nets by any means, but head coach Amy Williams wasn’t pleased with her ball screen defense. The initial coverage was strong but on the backend, there were too many open shots coming.
Offensively, Nebraska was out of rhythm despite a week’s worth of rest and prep.
“The last two ball games we’ve just felt out of sync and not really playing within a flow,” Williams said. “[Other teams] are becoming familiar with our team, with our personnel, with our actions and system and they’re taking some things away.”
So at halftime, with the Huskers down four, Williams preached two things: defense and execution. The Huskers (18-7, 9-3 Big Ten) won the second half 27-20, taking each quarter from the Badgers (9-17, 2-11) on the back of a stingy defense and opportunistic offense, grinding out a 51-48 win at home.
“We certainly are not usually very excited to have 51 points in a game but I thought we got some defensive stops down the stretch when we really needed to,” Williams said. “We’ll take wins in this league any way we can get them.”
Break this one down to three different points in the second half. The first was an out-of-bounds play that sealed the win. With 6.7 seconds left, Wisconsin down 49-48 and out of timeouts, forward Maddie Simon stepped up to defend the inbounds pass.
“I was yelling at her trying to get in her head,” Simon said. “My teammates did the rest of the work behind me.”
Wisconsin couldn’t get a pass in and Nebraska forced a five-second violation to turn the ball over. They ran off three seconds as Wisconsin tried to foul its way into the bonus and then Simon drained both free throws — two of her eight points on the day.
“It’s never fun to have the other team get the last shot to potentially win the game,” Simon said. “Our goal was just to get a stop and to play solid defense, talk on screens and not let them get a shot off.”
The Huskers lost by one to Clemson earlier in the season, and by five in overtime to Michigan. Losses that still haunt Williams. It’s promising to see her team start to figure things out late in ball games.
“We’ve been finding ways to get over hurdles,” she said.
Second, was a defensive stop from guard Hannah Whitish. With just over three minutes left and Nebraska up one, center Darrien Washington fell down dropping on a ball screen. Whitish recovered as Wisconsin knifed to the basket, forced a redirect and an awkward shot in the lane and then grabbed the rebound. For the second game in a row, Whitish was off with her shot — she ended the day 1-for-8 — but she made plays elsewhere.
“That’s the sign of a mature player, when they know, ‘Okay, even when I’m not making baskets my role is critical and I’ve got to stay in a leadership role,’” Williams said. “I liked her body language today, I thought she stayed in the game even though things were not going her way.”
Whitish finished with a game-high six assists.
Williams calls those energy pills, plays where someone finds a way to spark the team without scoring. The defensive stop on Wisconsin’s final true possession was an energy pill. Whitish making a play on defense? Energy pill. Nebraska forcing four consecutive turnovers in the third quarter with Wisconsin up seven? Energy pill.
“Those possessions and defensive stops are critical, particularly in that type of moment when we needed to make something happen for ourselves,” Williams said. “We weren’t going to outscore them just by putting up a lot of points so those defensive stops and stringing defensive stops back-to-back is what got us into the game.”
Those four turnovers resulted in an 8-0 Nebraska run, a run that gave the Huskers their first lead in almost 27 minutes of game clock.
“I think it shows the growth this team has made over the course of the season,” Simon said. “If things aren’t going well, it just shows how we can kind of come together and lean on each other to get stops and get a win down the stretch.”
Next up is Michigan State on the road on Wednesday. The Spartans are 15-11 this season (5-8 in conference play) but Williams said she hasn’t “even glanced” at their film.
“We’ve just been locked in and focused on what we need to do to beat Wisconsin.”
“A win is a win,” Williams said in the locker room after the game. “Might not be as pretty as we wanted it to but we can’t complain.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.