Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Preparing for UT Martin, What They Hope Will Be a Long WNIT Run

March 18, 2021

This past week, the Nebraska women’s basketball team had some of those “on this day” memories pop up in social feeds. A year ago, Nebraska was expecting a WNIT bid that never came. Not because of anything Nebraska did or didn’t do, rather the Huskers were locked out of their own facilities as the coronavirus—then in its early days of being taken seriously—shut down the sports world.

“We were really expecting a WNIT bid and we were really looking forward to being able to make a statement,” said senior center Kate Cain. “I think having to wait another full year just to have an opportunity to play in the postseason is a big deal.”

Any time you get to play postseason basketball in March, Cain said, it’s a great opportunity. 

Cain, a fourth-year starter, has only done it once before. Nebraska made the NCAA Tournament her freshman season. It likely would have gone to the WNIT last season if not for the shutdown; Nebraska was 17-13.

This team is different from that team in a lot of ways—in fact only three real contributors from last season’s team are on this one—but these Huskers are determined to make that wait worth it all the same. 

“Everything was really crazy,” head coach Amy Williams said. “Our kids were locked out of our facilities, not even able to get into the gym to get shots up, things like that. It really helped create a sheer appreciation for any opportunities that we have.”

Nebraska mostly expected this WNIT bid to come. In the regular season, it took five games of NET top-35 teams. Against the NCAA Tournament field, Nebraska was 5-7. Then in the Big Ten Tournament a week ago, Nebraska downed Minnesota on the second day of action and nearly slayed top-seed Maryland in the quarterfinals a day later.

“For us, we always want to be playing our very best basketball in March and down the stretch and peaking at the right time,” Williams said.

And Nebraska feels like it is. In the fourth quarter against Maryland last Thursday, it held a lead with about six minutes to play. Nebraska went cold down the stretch and the Terps did what they do, but Nebraska took a lot of pride in that performance. 

Junior guard and leading scorer Sam Haiby used a national stage to put the Maryland defense in a blender. Nebraska showed it wasn’t just some plucky team catching good squads at bad moments in the regular season; it was a real threat. 

NU’s goal this year was to be the best in the country at handling the curveball. Williams has really drilled down on that. Adversity was going to come; this new roster needed to embrace it. 

And they did. Nebraska practiced at times with single-digit players in the preseason. It played games with only six healthy scholarship players. Williams used a handful of different starting lineups, each one forcing a slightly reworked offensive plan of attack. 

Nebraska still isn’t healthy—guard Trinity Brady started the year on the wing but remains out, and recent starter Ruby Porter will likely miss Nebraska’s upcoming game—but the team is playing with a good deal of confidence. 

“Like Coach said, we don’t like to celebrate moral victories, but that (Maryland performance) just shows like next season we are right there, we are up there with the best of the teams in the Big Ten and we can beat any team in the Big Ten,” said sophomore forward Issie Bourne. “That’s really exciting for the whole team.”

And in the interim, what does Nebraska have planned for the WNIT run it begins on Friday?

“Winning it would be nice,” Cain said.

Nebraska opens with UT Martin on Friday at 11 a.m. CT. (Each game of the WNIT this year will be streamed on FloSports.)

Unlike years past, the WNIT won’t be played at home sites, but rather four neutral sites around the country. The 32-team field has been split into four groups of eight and sent out to Memphis, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; Fort Worth, Texas; and Rockford, Illinois. 

Everyone is guaranteed two games in each regional, to be played on Friday and Saturday (March 19 and 20). The winners of each regional will move to Memphis for the semifinal and championship games on March 26 and 28. 

Nebraska finds itself in the Memphis region. It left Thursday morning. If it makes the championship match, Nebraska will spend the next two weeks in Memphis. 

“This will be a unique experience for all of us,” Williams said. 

Her and her staff have won this tournament before. In 2016, with South Dakota, Williams claimed the WNIT title. 

“I think our coaching staff is able to impart just how difficult it is to win postseason games anywhere,” she said. “To continue to advance, (coaches can explain) how challenging that is and how focused you have to be. You need contributions from everybody in order to make that special type of run happen.”

But this is going to be different even for them. 

“This tournament is so uniquely different than what we were able to experience in the fact that there are not home seeds hosting on their home court,” Williams said. “When we won the WNIT championship, five of our six games were played in our home arena in front of 8,000 screaming fans and sellout crowds.”

Bring your own juice. You’re all you’ve got. 

And Nebraska will have its hands full with its opening-round matchup. The Skyhawks won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season crown with a 17-2 record in league play. They’re in the WNIT thanks to an eight-point loss in the conference’s championship game to No. 2 seed Belmont. 

“We have a ton of respect for their program and the season they’ve had,” Williams said. 

Nebraska’s posts will be tested. UT Martin boasts the OVC Player of the Year in its frontcourt—6-foot-2 senior forward Chelsey Perry. 

In the regular season, Perry averaged 23.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. She missed six games late and was only available off the bench during the Skyhawks run through the conference tourney. Still, in the championship game, she had 16 points, seven boards, and five assists in 23 minutes off the bench. 

“They have five players that shoot over 40% from the 3-point line, so it just makes it very difficult with one really good post player inside and you surround that person with a ton of really good shooters,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to be great with team defense.”

Paige Pipkin and Seygan Robins, both starters averaging about eight points a game, shoot 41% and 48% respectively. Perry herself shot 41% on about four takes a game this year. 

“I’d say us forwards will have to do a good job defending her one-on-one and making sure she doesn’t get inside shots so those outside guards don’t have to help in,” Bourne said. “That would probably be the priority.”

The Skyhawks average 70 a game, shoot 47% from the field, and 38% from the 3-point line. If you’re helping off shooters to limit Perry’s damage inside, you’re going to get buried by the long ball. 

Look for Nebraska to commit bodies to the boards to prevent second-chance opportunities—something it always does, to be fair—and watch how NU plays help defense. 

It’s been a week since Nebraska last played. I asked Williams how her group has responded to the loss. Her group watched Maryland go on to win the tournament and thought, “Hey, we’re right there,” she said. 

“Knowing and embracing the fact that if we can be more consistent with our efforts, we can be one of the best teams and cutting down nets in that tournament real soon. We’re pleased with our performance in the tournament, but we’re not satisfied with not being able to get over the hump when we have a fourth-quarter lead. That’s exactly where I would like our team and our program to be—understanding and grateful for the improvements we’ve made but certainly not satisfied and continually hungry to get over the hump and wanting to seek out ways to get postseason wins. 

“That’s what they’re wanting to do here in this postseason tournament.”

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