As of late, Nebraska women’s basketball had gotten away with fourth-quarter struggles, having big leads cut to single-digits late and making numerous errors, but still finding a way to win.
Not this time. The Huskers didn’t lead by 20 like they had in the two games prior, but held double-digit advantages a few times throughout the game and led for the entirety of the second and third quarters. To end the third, they gave up eight unanswered points, and Illinois added 12 more to start the final period of play. The 20-0 run took the Fighting Illini from down 10 to up 10 in a span of less than seven minutes, and they held on to win from there.
Nebraska made just one field goal in the fourth quarter, although a long stretch of free-throw attempts made up for it to some extent. Still, the team was disappointed to lose in that fashion at home.
“Down the stretch, we just were not doing the same things that were causing us to have success early,” Husker head coach Amy Williams said postgame. “And I feel a little bit like we let one slip away.”
Prior to the collapse, the first 28 minutes of the game were mostly consistent. The Huskers controlled the game with defense, staving off a few notable Illinois runs, and played offense well enough to keep extending the lead. After the opening five minutes in which Illinois used an 8-0 run to jump out to an 11-5 lead, the Huskers came back with 11 straight points and ended the first quarter leading by three.
At halftime, the advantage grew to eight points behind the efforts of its four leading scorers. Besides free-throw troubles and giving up some buckets to Illinois’ Kendall Bostic, Alexis Markowski had her way in the first half, recording eight points and five rebounds in the second quarter alone. The center had 12 points and nine rebounds at the break, while forward Isabelle Bourne added 11 points. Both scored efficiently, while guards Jaz Shelley and Sam Haiby combined for nine first-half points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Even as Makira Cook scored four straight points to cut the deficit from 12 to eight before halftime, things seemed to be getting worse for the Illini. Genesis Bryant, the Illini’s second-leading scorer on the season, went down with a lower leg injury near the end of the first quarter and missed the rest of the game, heading to the locker room on crutches at half.
Illinois did show signs of life immediately out of halftime too, cutting the lead down to four early in the third quarter and six points with under four minutes to go. The latter happened via the Illini’s first 3-pointer since the opening minute of the game. But the Huskers kept responding, and Maddie Krull fought through a foul for a layup that put the advantage back at 10 points. She missed the free throw, the ball bouncing off the rim being the sound that started a seven-minute scoring drought.
On the other end, Bostic finished over Markowski, then did it again on the next possession for an and-one. Jayla Oden finished the period with an and-one of her own, making it just a two-point game heading into the final quarter. Between the last two buckets were Nebraska turnovers, which had plagued the team in the two games prior.
Oden tied the game early in the fourth quarter to keep the momentum going. Markowski dropped to 1-for-6 from the free throw line with another pair of misses, and Adalia McKenzie finished an and-one on the other end. Minutes later, back-to-back Husker turnovers failed to turn into Illini points, but it didn’t matter. After Bourne missed an ill-advised mid-range jumper, Oden was found all alone at the top of the key, hitting a three to extend the lead to eight. A made jumper from Cook off a turnover capped the big run with 5:16 remaining in the game.
Illinois head coach Shauna Green said postgame it was just a matter of the shots beginning to fall for her team. That didn’t happen on the other side. Nebraska took open looks, contested looks and ended possessions without getting shots up at all, and it didn’t matter as the Illini took control.
“We had some easy looks, I thought we missed a few bunnies early,” Williams said. “Then started kind of settling, but I thought during that stretch, Illinois continued to really attack the basket, attack the paint.”
Markowski and Bourne’s early outputs didn’t continue past halftime. The two combined to shoot 1-for-12 in the second half after going 9-for-13 in the first. Williams said Illinois upped its physicality after the break, and that made the difference.
Nebraska finally got back to scoring by relying on another trend from the past two games — free throws. The Huskers scored on seven straight possessions, the first six being because they were fouled. They converted 11 of the 12 resulting free throws, finishing with 34 attempts from the line for the second straight game. Haiby made seven in that stretch, and made a layup on the last of the aforementioned seven possessions to break a 10-minute field goal drought and cut the deficit to four points.
“Do what I always do, keep playing hard, going to the basket, try not to settle for mid-ranges or pull-ups or whatever,” Haiby said of her mentality late. “Just trying to find a way to help this team win.”
Nebraska got a stop after that, and Haiby missed a tough layup which would have made it a one-score game. Cook blew past Markowski to lay it in and bring the lead back to six, and back-to-back missed threes by the Huskers helped seal their loss.
With the team having struggled in three straight fourth-quarters — being outscored by at least nine points in each — the Huskers don’t really have answers for what’s behind the trend. Haiby was asked postgame what changed late, and Williams asked if there was anything from a mental standpoint that went into the fourth-quarter struggles. The answer was the same.
“I don’t know,” they said to the respective questions.
Williams said that the causes of struggles in each recent game have been different, so she can’t point to one specific thing on the court that hasn’t been up to par recently in those situations. Regardless, it’s something that both her and Haiby acknowledge they need to figure out.
There’s no telling what exactly the Huskers will need to do down the stretch to try and make the NCAA Tournament, but the loss to Illinois at home surely makes it a tougher road. In the final five games, they play two top-15 opponents in Iowa and Michigan, plus a road rematch with Illinois. The team is still viewing the upcoming schedule as an opportunity to get big wins.
“We have another huge opportunity ahead of us going on the road at Michigan,” Haiby said. “Our goal is still to play in the postseason, and we have to win games like we have next coming up.”