Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers’ Will to Keep Fighting Gives Amy Williams Her Most Interesting Team Yet

January 10, 2021

Nebraska’s opponents this season are a combined 57-33. In 10 games, head coach Amy Williams’ squad has faced four ranked Big Ten opponents and an Idaho State team that’s currently 8-1 on the year (with the only loss being a 64-51 loss to NU). 

On Sunday, the Huskers upset the 23rd-ranked Michigan State Spartans on the road thanks to a 12-2 run in the last five minutes of the game, giving them their second win over a ranked opponent this season and win No. 6 overall. Nebraska also has a win over a previously unbeaten Northwestern team that was ranked 15th nationally when the two met. Michigan State was 8-1 entering Sunday’s game. 

This Husker team is a tad bit offensively challenged, mostly because it has no depth, which is a result of incredibly rotten injury luck and a few transfers from key rotation players. And despite a bench that runs only three deep with freshmen, Nebraska has been competitive in every game but one. 

It might not be Williams’ best team in her five years in Lincoln—though it’s hard to even know that definitively yet when the puzzle is still missing pieces—but it might easily be her most likable. They fight, they scratch and claw, they do not seem to know how to die. 

“This team has embraced wanting to handle the curveball,” Williams said after dispatching Illinois 78-72 to open Big Ten play on Dec. 10. 

Seems like they get thrown a new one with each passing day. 

A starter on the wing to open the year, guard Trinity Brady was lost to a foot injury in the closing minutes of the Idaho State win in early December and hasn’t played since. 

Three days later, backup guard Makenzie Helms left the team to transfer closer to home. 

In the offseason, Williams lost Leigha Brown to a similarly-motivated transfer. On the heels of a Sixth Player of the Year award in the Big Ten, Brown took her “can get you 20 on any given night” scoring to Michigan, where she has averaged 20 each night for the 9-0 Wolverines. 

Nebraska lost to them by just 2 despite a minus-27 disadvantage on the boards. 

Like I said, fight. 

Williams also lost her starting four this offseason when Ashtyn Veerbeek decided to transfer to Dordt University in Iowa. On the same day, Kayla Mershon, a backup forward that could play next to starting center Kate Cain and more than hold her own defensively, announced a transfer to Minnesota. 

And months before the season Taylor Kissinger, a wing shooter/stretch four on whom Williams could rely when healthy, saw her career come to a medically-forced end. 

Two transfer guards added to the roster this offseason have yet to play a minute.

Annika Stewart, a freshman forward with a quick-trigger 3-point shot, isn’t yet ready defensively to give a good team good minutes off the bench. Whitney Brown, a freshman guard from nearby Grand Island, wasn’t supposed to be relied on this early (she played 21 minutes and sunk a game-sealing free throw with 2 seconds left Saturday). Ruby Porter, a freshman wing, is still raw. 

Ashley Scoggin, NU’s starter at the point and something of a basketball rover, looks as though she’s only now feeling comfortable driving into the paint; a litany of knee surgeries robbed her of basketball for the better part of four years and she’s adjusting to life in the Big Ten after a transfer from the JUCO level. Kate Cain, even as a senior, is still restricted to operations within 18 feet or so. And Issie Bourne, a mega-promising sophomore, is playing out of position. 

Excuses, excuses, excuses. Williams, unlike some of her other colleagues, legitimately has any number of excuses that could be made and justified if her team was losing night in and night out. 

But they’re not. 

They’re 6-4. 

The season began 3-0. 

Then Porter got hurt early against Creighton, and Nebraska got blitzed for three games. An 81-45 loss to Indiana on the road on Dec. 20 was the floor. Nebraska was down by as many as 16 in a fourth quarter against Purdue three nights later. 

In those three straight losses, Nebraska’s defense allowed an average of 80.6 points a night. 

In the four games since, a stretch that has seen NU go 3-1 with the lone loss being the near-comeback at Michigan, NU has allowed 60.2 points. 

It has seen individually-dynamic scorers at each stop along the way. Naz Hillmon (UM) leads the Big Ten in scoring at 26 a night. Arella Guirantes (Rutgers) is third at 23 a game. Nia Clouden (MSU) is fifth at 20 a game. Veronica Burton (Northwestern) is 13th at 18 a game. 

Burton was held to 15 on 14 shots. 

Guirantes was held to eight on 24 shots. 

Clouden on Sunday was held to 14 on 13 shots. 

Hillmon is the only one that has been allowed to go off, and in her explosion her teammates missed their mark repeatedly, shooting a combined 9-of-51. In that game, Nebraska was down 11 with 4:29 to play, and had a chance to tie things up in the final sixty seconds. 

It’s hard to play defense the way Nebraska is, when every possession down the floor matters and every minute matters and you know there are no reinforcements coming. It takes a toll. Maybe the check is coming due shortly. You question how much can possibly be left in the tank. But if the performances in Michigan are any indication, Nebraska will find a way.

Sam Haiby, Nebraska’s leading scorer, has to carry the burden at both ends, and the 5-foot-9 guard led the team in rebounds against the Spartans. She had 12, her first career double-double. Williams challenged her to lead the team in rebounding this season. 

On most nights, Bourne has to guard perimeter players with an athletic advantage and then has to play from the 3-point line in, instead of from the low block out. 

Certainly not a fun or high-flying brand of basketball. It’s a grind. But Nebraska seems to be discovering an identity on that end. With Haiby’s emergence as a bucket-getter in the clutch (Northwestern fans tremble), Nebraska can play this way and know it has a certified shot-maker to lean on at the end of a mucked-up affair.

Forward Bella Cravens, an offseason addition from Eastern Washington, has been a remarkable defensive fit next to Cain, allowing the shot-blocker to roam freely knowing there’s another capable rebounder to handle the glass. Nebraska can use length to bother almost anyone in the Big Ten. Williams deserves a tremendous amount of credit for building and then managing this roster. 

The latest curveball came in the closing minutes against Michigan State, when Bourne went down with an ankle injury. After the game, Williams said the severity wouldn’t be known until NU was able to get home and run some imaging. Bourne led all scorers with 18 points. 

Nebraska can’t afford to lose her. 

But you could have said that about Brown and Veerbeek. 

And then again about Kissinger. 

And then again about Brady and Helms. 

And then again about Porter. 

And Nebraska just keeps coming. 

Don’t quit on this team yet.

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