At this point of the season, there’s little time for the Nebraska women’s basketball team to rest.
The Huskers will play their third game in seven days on Sunday, taking on No. 12 Michigan for the second time this season. February is the most packed month of the schedule, with eight games in 26 days, five coming in under two weeks.
Nebraska’s most recent game of that stretch was a home loss to Illinois. The Illini are a projected NCAA Tournament squad, but the loss hurt for the Huskers given that they led by double-digits and gave up a 20-0 run between the third and fourth quarters. Illinois was also missing Genesis Bryant, one of its best players, for the majority of the contest.
The Huskers are still projected as a tournament team by ESPN’s Charlie Creme, but sit in the “Last Four In” category and could easily be left out if selections were made now.
A win in Ann Arbor against a top-15 team could significantly help their chances.
“We have another huge opportunity ahead of us going on the road at Michigan,” fifth-year guard Sam Haiby said after the loss to Illinois. “Our goal is still to play in the postseason, and we have to win games like we have next coming up.”
The Huskers lost to the Wolverines at home in late December. That game was not doomed by the late collapses that Nebraska’s struggled with recently, rather a poor start. The team scored five points in the opening quarter, a program-low. Michigan still outscored the Huskers over the final three quarters, but by just three points. The 14-point differential through 10 minutes took away any chance for Nebraska late.
Former Husker Leigha Brown led Michigan’s four double-digit scorers with 20 points in the game, while Nebraska shot 33.3% from the field and 6-for-26 from three.
Since that game, Michigan has only lost to other top-15 opponents, whether it be Iowa and Indiana coming out on top in a shootout or Ohio State locking down the Michigan offense.
As far as personnel goes, things could be different on both sides on Sunday. Nebraska’s lineup hasn’t changed since then, but the loss against Michigan was the team’s first game after Allison Weidner’s season-ending injury. Sam Haiby returned to the starting lineup, but was still working her way back from injury in her third appearance of the year. She played 13 minutes in the game, but has been on the court for at least 25 minutes in every matchup since. The last seven games, she’s played at least 30 minutes.
Haiby could be a game-changer for Nebraska in the matchup. She snapped the team’s scoring drought against Illinois by getting to the free throw line repeatedly, scoring nine points in just over three minutes to try and help a comeback attempt.
For Michigan, Laila Phelia has missed the last two games with a leg injury. She’s one of the team’s top scorers, averaging 17 points per game and shooting 41.1% from three. It’ll have been a week since Michigan’s last game on Sunday, but Phelia’s status is unknown. In the meantime, Jordan Hobbs has filled in, scoring eight and five points starting against Illinois and Michigan State, respectively. She did not play in the first matchup against Nebraska.
Of course, the Wolverines still have two more players averaging more than 16 points and haven’t missed a beat with Phelia out.
Nebraska faces a tough task in hoping to upset Michigan, and Williams said the challenge of this current stretch of the schedule is keeping players healthy. Jaz Shelley plays over 35 minutes per game, Haiby now regularly tops 30 minutes, and Isabelle Bourne and Alexis Markowski receive similar loads in the frontcourt from time to time.
Every game of Nebraska’s last five in the regular season will be key, and the team is looking to break out of its recent struggles.
“This is a team that knows that everything’s not always easy, and adversity will come but we embrace hard things in our program, and it’s something that defines character.” Williams said postgame Thursday. “We’re going to make sure that this defining moment for our character is toughness and grit and fight.”