Survive and advance is the name of the game this time of year. Nebraska did more than that in its opening matchup of the 2021 Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament—it thrived. A 72-61 win over No. 9 seed Minnesota Wednesday fueled by a crisp first half has the Huskers moving on to quarterfinal action in Indianapolis.
Nebraska, the eight seed at this year’s conference tournament, took the lead for good with 1:12 to play in the first quarter and never looked back.
Freshman wing Kendall Coley hit a triple just before the buzzer at the end of the first quarter and then another early in the second. Her buckets were part of a 22-5 run over a nine-minute stretch between the end of the first and opening of the second that saw Nebraska break the game open.
NU led by 17 going into the halftime break and pushed that lead to 20 early in the fourth quarter. The Gophers threatened to make things interesting late in the fourth, but Nebraska was in control the whole way.
Minnesota—which had beaten Nebraska in both regular-season matchups—was without three regular starters and began the game with a fourth starter on the bench. The three injured Gophers were each of the team’s three leading scorers, who combine to average more than 40 points a game. It was going to be an uphill battle.
In the first meeting, the Gophers used hot shooting from the perimeter. In the second, they used an interior presence to punish Nebraska down low.
“That was something we talked about,” coach Amy Williams said after the game.
In Round 3, particularly early on, Nebraska played as sound on both ends of the floor as it has all season.
On 27 made shots, Nebraska had 20 assists. NU dominated the paint, won the rebounding battle and had its lowest turnover output since mid-January.
“Against a team like Minnesota, who I feel like the first two times we played them they really kind of took us out of what we wanted to do offensively with just their pressure and getting up, I thought things were fairly physical today,” Williams said. “We shared the basketball and made the extra pass and it paid off for us today.”
Time and time again, Nebraska found open shots. In a slow-to-get-going first quarter, those shots weren’t connecting. But the game can be pretty rewarding when you commit to playing it the right way; keep moving the ball and good things happen. Nebraska did just that, and shots started falling.
During that late-first/mid-second quarter run, Nebraska shot 8-for-12 from the floor. At the break, NU was just under 50% shooting for the game with a healthy balance of paint points and 3s.
“I think that second quarter was huge,” Williams said.
Williams challenged post players Kate Cain, Issie Bourne, and Bella Cravens. They responded. Cain had 16 points in the game on 8-for-11 shooting, adding six boards. Bourne had 14 points and seven rebounds. Cravens, in 18 minutes off the bench, had five points, three assists, two boards, two steals, and a blocked shot.
The locker room after the game, Williams said, was mixed. For someone like Sam Haiby, NU’s junior guard and leading scorer Wednesday (19 points, eight rebounds), this was her first career win at the Big Ten Tournament. It was Nebraska’s first since the 2017-18 season. Plenty of reason for excitement.
But in the third quarter, starting wing Ruby Porter went down with an apparent knee injury, had to be carried off the court and then did not return.
It appeared to be a non-contact injury with her left knee buckling under her. She was scoreless before leaving the game Wednesday morning, but she’s settled into a nice rhythm on the wing in Nebraska’s starting lineup of late.
It’s unclear if she’ll be able to go Thursday when Nebraska plays No. 1 seed Maryland at 10 a.m. CT.
“That’s the thing this season has really prepared us for,” Williams said. “We’ve had to adjust so much throughout this year. We lost Ruby to an ankle earlier in the season, we’ve had to shuffle lineups, we’ve had to play big lineups, we’ve had to play small lineups, and I think that’s what we’ve been preparing for. Whether or not we are leaning on our guard reserves to step in and help us out there or if it’s gonna be going to a bigger lineup and playing Issie some minutes there (on the wing), I think the good news is we’re prepared for all of those scenarios.”
Maryland (21-2, 17-1 Big Ten) will test Nebraska regardless of who’s playing where. The Terps beat NU 95-73 in the only other meeting between the two this season and hold the nation’s best offense.
All five starters average double-digit points for the Terps. Nebraska has its work cut out for itself.
But Wednesday was a good start. Nebraska (12-11, 9-10 Big Ten) had lost six of its last eight heading into Wednesday’s meeting with the Gophers. To be as clinical as they were, the locker room has reason for optimism.
“We know how tough it is to get wins in March, particularly down here in the Big Ten Tournament, so for us to beat a good Minnesota team and bounce back after a couple losses during the regular season and beat hem down here, it feels great,” Williams said.
“We’re still marching.”