Leigha Brown caught fire in the first half and led Nebraska to a 71-51 win over Manhattan at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday afternoon.
The Huskers finished 10-1 in nonconference play with three wins over high-major opponents. The lone loss came at home to Creighton on Nov. 24.
“We knew coming in that we had the ability to start off like this and I think it’s a huge confidence-builder going into conference play,” Brown said. “Our conference is arguably one of the toughest in the nation this year, so it’s definitely, like I said, a good confidence-builder and we just want to carry our play over.”
Brown led all scorers with 25 points on 9-of-15 from the field and 3-of-4 from the line with five rebounds and four assists. After shooting 6-of-25 from 3 in the first 10 games, she tied her career-high with four triples on seven attempts.
“I’m so proud of Leigha,” Coach Amy Williams said. “She’s aggressive-minded offensively and that’s no secret. I think she’s really embraced the beast off the bench kind of role and kind of being that sixth man and coming in and really sparking our team offensively … She’s been getting some repetition in there [with her 3-point shot] and she’s been watching a lot of film. To watch that pay off with 4-for-7 from behind the arc today but also maintaining her aggressiveness off the dribble, getting herself to the free-throw line, finding ways to come up with offensive rebounds and just a lot of really good things.”
Kate Cain finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and a block while Sam Haiby added 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting and six assists, though she also turned the ball over five times.
With starting power forward Ashtyn Verbeek in street clothes nursing an ankle injury, Nebraska’s other forwards — sophomore Kayla Mershon, freshman Isabelle Bourne and senior Grace Mitchell — combined for 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and 15 rebounds.
“I just thought they found ways to kind of raise their level and try to make up for Ashtyn’s absence,” Williams said. “Kayla Mershon I thought did a great job of just coming in and doing little things like she does. That’s the biggest luxury as a head coach when you have the depth that we have to be able to know that a player’s not going to come in and try to do too much but yet still be able to find a way to raise their level to make up for the absence of other teammates. I thought Kayla did that, I thought Izzy did a great job of that, I thought Grace Mitchell did a great job of that. It was really fun to see”
The first quarter went back and forth with eight lead changes and three ties as Nebraska looked to get the ball inside and the Jaspers fired away from the perimeter. Manhattan hit five 3s on nine attempts to keep it close as the Huskers led 21-19 at the end of the first.
Freshman Trinity Brady made her debut during the period after missing the first 10 games while recovering from injury.
After scoring six points in the first quarter with a three-point play and a 3, Brown took over in the second, knocking down two more 3s as Nebraska opened the quarter with a 9-0 run. After Kania Pollock hit a pull-up jumper on back-to-back possessions for Manhattan, Nebraska responded with seven straight including another 3 and a bucket in the paint from Brown.
“I think my teammates did a great job of getting me open,” Brown said. “I know the bigs were setting great screens and the guards were able to just create, so I got to get going early. I got some open looks, so I think it was a credit to them.”
The Jaspers scored again in the final minute to make it 37-25 Nebraska at halftime, but they made just one of their last 10 shots of the half. Three Nebraska turnovers in the final 130 seconds kept the Huskers from running away with it, but Brown outscored Manhattan 12-6 by herself in the second quarter as Manhattan missed all seven of its 3-point attempts.
“I just think in the first half we weren’t quite as locked in to our defensive game plan of staying home to certain shooters on the ball side and because of that, we gave up a few too many open looks from behind the arc,” Williams said. “I thought we did a better job of adjusting to that in the second quarter.”
Nebraska opened the second half on a 7-0 run to push the lead to to 19 before the Jaspers knocked down 3s on three straight possessions and then got a layup to cut it back down to 12. After an extended scoring drought for both teams, Emily LaPointe got to the line and split a pair for Manhattan to cut it to 11 with 1:45 to play in the quarter. Cain scored inside to end Manhattan’s run and the huskers took a 50-37 lead into the final period.
The Huskers delivered the knockout blow with a 9-0 run to open the fourth quarter and cruised to the finish from there. Brown converted a tough put-back through contact for a three-point play to give her a new season-high of 25.
Brady scored her first career points on a pair of bonus free throws in the fourth and finished with 2 points, four rebounds, an assist and a block in 16 minutes.
“I really missed playing with all of [my teammates],” Brady said. “It was hard sitting out, but it was great to be back.”
The Huskers will head home for the holiday break before opening Big Ten play at home against Iowa on Saturday.
“I’m proud of our team to be ending our nonconference portion of this season 10-1 and just excited about some of the growth we’ve seen up to this point and the thought that we’ve got a lot of growth in front of us still,” Williams said. “We feel like we still can keep getting better and better and we’re looking forward to doing that heading into Big Ten play.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 1 p.m.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.