Nebraska women’s basketball’s intentions for the conference tournament were made clear shortly after its regular season-closing win over Northwestern.
“We are excited to be carrying a little momentum with us into Minneapolis where we expect to go and win,” Husker head coach Amy Williams said in the postgame press conference.
Some level of success in the Big Ten bracket is crucial for the team after an up-and-down season that has left it on the NCAA Tournament bubble. As Williams mentioned, it’s a positive that Nebraska has won its last two games.
The Huskers beat then-ranked Illinois on the road by 33 points before closing the year with a double-digit victory over Northwestern. This has been their best stretch of basketball since Allison Weidner’s season-ending injury in the final matchup of December’s five-game win streak.
Jaz Shelley has been a big part of the recent success. The junior guard led the team in points in both wins, and after some inconsistencies throughout the year, she’s picked up some scoring momentum as of late.
In the last five games, Shelley averaged 23 points and shot 42.6% from 3, along with making 92.6% of her free throws on 5.4 attempts per game.
Following the Senior Day win over the Wildcats, she talked about how the season’s struggles relieved some of the pressure on Nebraska to succeed.
“No one’s expecting us to do crazy things and I think that’s when we play our best basketball,” Jaz Shelley said. “Just loose and free.”
While Shelley may be correct about how outside expectations changed — Nebraska opened the season ranked — there is a lot on the line for the team in the Big Ten Tournament.
ESPN currently lists the Huskers among the “First Four Out” of the NCAA tourney field. That evaluation suggests that they’ll need at least one win, and perhaps an upset for a second, to find their way in. Their No. 42 spot in the NET rankings also suggests they’re on a similar level to other projected bubble teams.
The first test of the Big Ten bracket for eighth-seeded Nebraska is ninth-seed Michigan State. The Spartans are also a projected bubble team, although a little further away. In their lone matchup with the Huskers, Nebraska came out with a four-point win at home after leading by 20 in the third quarter.
A big factor in Michigan State’s comeback effort in that game was turnovers. After going up 20 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Huskers gave it away 11 times in the next 12 minutes. They finished with 26 total turnovers.
“We’re going to have to be much more prepared and ready to be diligent against their full-court pressure,” Williams said of the upcoming matchup on her radio show Monday. “[Being] deceptive, utilizing fakes, being able to mix some things up, the way we attack their press.”
Should Nebraska once again get past the Spartans, it’ll run right into a matchup with top-seeded Indiana. The Hoosiers are ranked No. 2 in the nation, dropping just two games all season. One was to Michigan State, the other against No. 7 Iowa.
The Huskers were the next closest, taking Indiana to overtime on Jan. 1 before being held scoreless in the extra period. In a lower scoring regulation, their nine 3s helped them keep up.
The Hoosiers have only been stronger since then, adding first-team all-conference guard Grace Berger back into the lineup. But they’ve shown not to be untouchable.
Last year, Nebraska made some magic happen in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, upsetting Michigan. This time around, the team’s first two matchups will be even tougher, and have higher stakes attached.
Thursday’s game against Michigan State, starting at 11:30 a.m., will begin this year’s postseason run.
More news and notes:
>> Shelley highlighted Nebraska’s four all-conference honorees Tuesday, being named to the All-Big Ten first team by coaches and second team by media. She’s the first Husker to be named to the first team in Williams’ tenure, and is averaging 14.3 points per game, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.
As for other selections, Alexis Markowski was named to the second team by coaches and media, Isabelle Bourne was an honorable mention by both groups and Sam Haiby was a media honorable mention.
>> Nebraska’s path won’t be the only one worth watching in this conference tournament. Purdue and Illinois are both on the projected NCAA Tournament bubble, among the “Last Four Byes.” A Husker win and loss for either on Thursday could make things interesting.
Illinois will play the winner of the matchup between Rutgers and Northwestern, but the Boilermakers may be the better candidate for an early exit. They’re coming off a loss to Minnesota, and play a Wisconsin team that has won three straight games. Most recently, the Badgers beat No. 12 Michigan.
It’s worth noting here that Nebraska beat Purdue on the road in the lone matchup between the two.
>> Elsewhere on the bubble, Marquette and St. John’s play each other Saturday in the Big East Tournament. Princeton losing before the Ivy League title game could end its hopes. Syracuse and Oregon are the ninth seeds in their respective conferences, playing the eighth seed. The Ducks are projected as the “First Team Out,” with the rest of those programs making up the “Last Four In.”
Other teams on the outside looking in include West Virginia and Arkansas. The Mountaineers end the regular season playing two more tournament teams, while the Razorbacks face SEC ninth seed Missouri to open their conference bracket.