Photo Credit: John Peterson

Inconsistency, Injury Define Nebraska Women’s Basketball Season

March 25, 2023

Nebraska women’s basketball never put it all together.

The Huskers finished their season on Thursday, losing unremarkably to Kansas in the Super 16 round of the WNIT. After returning all five starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad and entering the year ranked in the top 25, Nebraska couldn’t build on or even recapture last year’s magic.

For nearly the entire season, Nebraska was literally unable to recreate the product it had put on the floor in 2021-22. The starting lineup to finish that season — made up of Jaz Shelley, Sam Haiby, Allison Weidner, Isabelle Bourne and Alexis Markowski — played a grand total of zero minutes together. The team played two games with all five of those players available.

The first came against Tarleton, where Haiby came off the bench in her first game back from a knee injury originally thought to be season-ending. Weidner exited in the first minute of that contest with an eye injury, and Haiby only played six minutes before once again hurting her knee. A month later, all five were available for the triple-overtime win over Kansas, but never saw the floor at the same time with Haiby coming off the bench, still working her way back. Weidner suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter of that game.

While those strokes of bad luck can’t go without mention, Nebraska showed it was capable of winning anyways. Head coach Amy Williams said as much in reflecting on the season.

“This team had several really impressive good wins that proved that we are capable of playing with the best teams in the country,” she said after the team’s WNIT loss. “We just didn’t do it consistently enough.”

The highs were often memorable for more reasons than just being wins over good teams. Nebraska’s first win over an eventual NCAA Tournament team came against Mississippi State in November in the Puerto Rico Clasico. Early in the year, it wasn’t yet known just how good the Bulldogs were due to an offseason coaching change and some major shifts to their roster, but it was a quality victory then and especially now. Shelley made four straight threes and scored 14 consecutive points in overtime to seal that win, which still stands as one of the most impressive things I’ve seen watching basketball.

A week later, Nebraska beat Maryland for the first time in program history, taking down the Terrapins by 23 points on the road. Maryland only took two home losses this season, one to the Huskers and one to the best team in the country — South Carolina.

Nebraska struggled after Weidner’s injury in December, but earned two more wins over eventual tournament squads, both on the road. Markowski outscored and outrebounded Purdue by herself in the fourth quarter of a comeback win over the Boilermakers, and a 33-point win over Illinois late in the regular season revived the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Huskers also competed with top teams in losses, taking Indiana to overtime and losing a close game to Iowa. In another meeting with the Hawkeyes, Nebraska lost by 20, but made history with a program-record attendance number of 14,289.

Those moments would be expected to belong to a team that ends up playing in March Madness. However, several bad losses changed that. Nebraska lived and died by its 3-point shot throughout the year, and its most brutal death came against Rutgers (12-20, 5-13 Big Ten). The Huskers missed their first 21 threes in that 45-57 loss.

Offense wasn’t a problem against Minnesota, the second-to-last place team in the Big Ten, but defense was. A game-winning three from the Gophers sealed a 95-92 Husker loss and overshadowed Shelley’s career-high 37 points.

Even in losses to good teams, five-point first quarters and blown double-digit leads can stand out. In Nebraska’s Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan State, its first four possessions ended with turnovers.

For every great moment of the year, there was an equally confounding shortcoming. A historic win over Maryland and Shelley becoming the first all-conference first team selection under Williams will be attached to a year where the Huskers didn’t meet expectations.

I don’t think four straight seasons of this program finishing with a record of .500 or better should be completely overlooked. For some other major teams at Nebraska, that’d be a cause for celebration. Three consecutive postseason tournament appearances provides something to keep building on. But Williams and the rest of the team set bigger expectations, and they surely know they were capable of at least returning to March Madness.

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