With six minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s quarterfinal tilt at the conference tournament, Nebraska had a lead over the Big Ten’s regular-season champ and top-seeded Maryland Terrapins. Contrast that to a month ago when these two met in Lincoln and Maryland entered the fourth quarter with a 27-point lead.
On this day, Nebraska went for the crown and seldom missed through the first 35 or so minutes. Throughout the third, as NU refused to go away despite Maryland’s best offensive punches, Nebraska shot 64%. When the fourth got rolling, junior guard Sam Haiby got hot.
In the end though, the Terps—and more specifically guard Ashley Owusu—were too much. Nebraska (12-12, 9-10 Big Ten) fell 83-73, its Big Ten Tournament run come to an end.
The 10-point margin doesn’t do the game justice. Maryland, the nation’s most prolific offense, had to grind out a win over Nebraska.
Clinging—yes, the top seed was clinging—to a four-point lead over the Huskers with the game clock ticking under 60 seconds to play, Maryland missed long on a stepback triple and saw Haiby grab the rebound and go, pushing toward a two-on-two fastbreak.
Haiby was able to contort around Owusu’s contest and get a shot up onto the rim where it lingered, almost excruciatingly so, before falling off. Husker forward Issie Bourne was there for the rebound and found a trailing Ashley Scoggin on the wing. The sophomore guard had been red-hot from beyond the arc in the first half (4-for-6), but this time she missed left.
Nebraska fouled to send Maryland to the free throw line and preserve clock, the Terps hit both, and Nebraska called time with 34.5 seconds to play and the deficit at six points. As large as a five-point swing in a manner of seconds.
Down the stretch in the fourth quarter, the ball just didn’t bounce Nebraska’s way.
With 3:25 to play and Nebraska down four, Owusu barreled into Bourne, the sophomore’s arms fully vertical, underneath the basket. Owusu made a layup during the collision but the officials waved it off and signaled a charge going against Maryland.
Upon review, they reversed the call, awarded the basket and gave Owusu an and-one free throw opportunity. Bourne’s left heel was on the restricted arc. Amy Williams was irate.
“It’s absolutely a turning point in just the circumstances of the game,” the Husker head coach said after.
It was the capper on a 7-0 Maryland run after Nebraska tied it at 68-all with just under six minutes to play.
Haiby hit a couple of free throws, forward Bella Cravens split a trip to the line, and it was back to four, but Owusu was there again with a pull-up jumper.
Scoggin got it back to four from the free throw line with 1:20 to go, then Nebraska idled.
Over the final 6:45 of Thursday’s game, Nebraska didn’t hit a shot from the field—0-for-11.
“They heated up and pressured up,” Williams said. “We were trying to get an inside paint touch. They brought help from the weak side and then their ball pressure was pretty intense.
“One of our game plans was to find a way to make them pay for over-helping and looking at skip passes, but they heated up their ball pressure and they were very physical with our ball-handlers, which made it difficult to be able to get that ball skipped over.”
As was the case when these two met earlier in the season—and is the case for most Maryland opponents—the Terps’ length was a problem area when they locked in defensively. Nebraska had just 11 points after the first quarter, missing 16 of its 20 shots.
But Maryland wanted to play with energy, wanted to speed the game up, get out and run. When Nebraska finally got settled, it forced Maryland to play in the halfcourt. Nebraska’s been good this season draining the energy and then executing down low.
Defensively, the Huskers held up well in halfcourt situations. And deliberate offense limited Maryland’s transition opportunities. For the game, the Terps had just eight fastbreak points.
“They had at least eight in the first five minutes at our place, so we kind of learned our lesson,” Williams said. “They were really running it down our backs.”
Haiby said that was an emphasis in prep for Maryland. Limit transition, win the boards. Nebraska did both. (It out-rebounded the Terps 39-32 thanks to 11 from Kate Cain, nine from Haiby, and eight from Cravens.)
In the second and third quarters, Nebraska shot 18-for-29 from the field. If they weren’t turning the ball over, the Huskers were scoring. Forced to just match points, Maryland had no answers on defense for long stretches.
Particularly for Haiby. She finished with 24 points to go along with her nine boards and six assists. In the fourth quarter alone, she scored 12, including back-to-back triples to open the frame that gave Nebraska a lead.
“All season long, she’s dealt with a lot and still found a way to produce,” Williams said. “I thought this game was really no different. She was getting beat up out there. They were really giving her a lot of attention and the game was very physical. Two fouls called on Maryland in the first three quarters of the game, but Sam handled that with poise and she took that contact and still found ways to produce.
“She hit a couple big 3s there in the fourth quarter to spark us and give us a lead. I think she just found a way to prove she can compete with the best in the country and she’s a pretty special player.”
She scored her 1,000th career point in the game, joining her teammate Kate Cain and 33 other women who have broken that threshold as a Husker. She scored 10 of Nebraska’s first 12 fourth-quarter points.
Maryland threw everything at her. On several occasions, it was the Haiby vs. Owusu show, with the two star guards taking turns going at each other in the fourth quarter.
Owusu, who finished with 22 points (10-for-11 at the free throw line), nine rebounds, and eight assists, got the last laugh. Maryland survived.
“We most certainly do not want to get to a habit of any time of moral victories in our program. When we fight and scratch and claw that hard, we want to come out with wins,” Williams said. “But, I am very proud of the resiliency we showed throughout the game, just battling and battling one possession at a time.
“I thought we had some really good growth for our team and for our program in this ballgame and I think we had a great showing here in Indianapolis.”
The loss puts Nebraska into wait-and-see mode. The NCAA Tournament is out of reach, but the 32-team WNIT field might be in play after a strong showing at the conference tournament.
The WNIT’s website states that “for 2021, a team does NOT need to have an overall record of .500 or better” or play a certain number of games. It’ll look at NET ranking, strength of schedule, strength of opponents and of their schedules, record against top-100 teams, and various eyeball test items.
Nebraska entered the day 74th in the NET ranking, but considering the showing it just had against the fifth-ranked Terrapins, perhaps Nebraska helped itself despite the loss. Nebraska is 7-9 this season against the NET top 100.
The field will be announced Monday, March 15.
“We most definitely are wanting to extend our season if we have an opportunity to do that,” Williams said when asked if the Huskers would accept a WNIT bid. “I think this team deserves it.”