Everywhere you look, good vibes surround the Nebraska women’s basketball team. That wasn’t the case a couple weeks ago, but it is now.
The Huskers are winners of five of their last six games, including a victory over Northwestern in front of a packed Pinnacle Bank Arena that sealed the deal for them to be the No. 6 seed of the Big Ten tournament and receive a first-round bye. Alexis Markowski, a first-year player from Lincoln Pius X High school, won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. She headlined a group of five Huskers who were honored by the conference on Tuesday, including Jaz Shelley, Sam Haiby, Isabelle Bourne and Bella Cravens.
Those positives can be used as momentum. So as Nebraska (22-7, 11-7) awaits to play No. 14 Illinois (7-19, 2-13) in the second round of the conference tournament on Thursday night inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, head coach Amy Williams couldn’t help but think how one season ended, and another is beginning.
“I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that we’re here, it’s postseason time and this is what we’ve been building for all year, all season,” Williams said Tuesday at the Devaney Center. “Now it’s kind of a new season and we want to build on some momentum here and go down and really make some noise in Indianapolis.”
Bourne is one Husker who has enjoyed a strong stretch lately. Early in the Big Ten schedule, from Dec. 30 to Feb. 1, Bourne was averaging 8.2 points. But the 6-foot-2 forward from Australia has bumped that average up to 14.4 in her last nine games. On Tuesday, Bourne said she’s gained confidence with her 3-point shot. That makes sense—she’s made at least one triple in the last eight games, a stretch where she has shot 57% (12-of-21) from behind the arc.
Bourne, who is now a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention selection, didn’t change anything about her routine. Instead, she simply kept faith and went about her business.
“We have ups and downs, there always is in Big Ten Conference as a team, and people individually will have good games and bad games,” Bourne said. “But it’s about sticking with it and sticking to practice and staying mentally tough.”
The program has gone through good times and bad this season, but right now the Huskers have 22 wins. If they can get to 23, it would tie for the fifth-most in a single season in school history. Along the way, the team has gotten closer. Bourne agreed that it was the most tight-knit the team has been all season, even when it was undefeated at 12-0 to start the year.
“Each day we get closer, each win we get closer. Even losses have been pulling us together off the court, on the court. Grinding together every day has pulled us closer together,” Bourne said.
Haiby became the first Husker in school history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists. When she was first alerted to that, she picked up her phone and texted her parents.
“It’s pretty cool to see that, all your hard work pay off,” the Moorhead, Minnesota, native said.
Haiby has been a solid and tough piece to the team this season. The 5-9 guard has been playing some of her best ball of the season at the right time. In her last six games, she’s been stuffing the stat sheet, averaging 11 points, 5.8 rebounds and five assists.
“I think we’re starting to peak right now, everything is coming together right when we need it to, so I’m really excited about our chances,” Haiby said of the conference tournament.
To Haiby, there’s some comfort in knowing the Huskers will potentially play a team it’s already beaten twice—Wisconsin—and once, Illinois. But she’s also aware that there are challenges to playing the same team multiple times.
Players and coaches watch the previous film and learn. They make adjustments and new game plans for the next time. The second game against Wisconsin wasn’t as easy as the first—the Huskers beat the Badgers by 33 points on Jan. 27, but only by 10 on Feb. 23.
“There’s definitely comfort with that, as far as the scouting report and stuff,” Haiby said of playing either the Badgers or Illini. “But it’s also hard to play a team three times or two times. You just never know what can happen.”
Said Williams: “What happens is you become more and more familiar with your opponent and their actions. I think in certain regards, it can be an advantage for either side, just based on what you take away from the first couple times that you’ve faced a team. This will be something where we’ll have to be locked in and focused and be the one that’s committed to making the right adjustments from the previous time out.”
Even without a deep run in the Big Ten tournament, Williams sees Nebraska as an NCAA tournament team. ESPN’s bracketology currently has Nebraska as a No. 7 seed playing No. 10 Arkansas in Waco, Texas. The Huskers’ NET ranking, which is a tool the tournament committee uses to help determine the field, is solid at 20th. The two top-10 wins over Michigan and Indiana show what the team is capable of.
“We do feel like we’ve done enough at this point to be securely in the tournament,” Williams said. “I think with our NET ranking as high as it is, and some of the quality wins we have at this point, we feel very solid that we are a NCAA tournament team, and we’re going to act like it. Certainly, making some noise in the Big Ten tournament can just help bolster that résumé.”
The résumé won’t get much help from Illinois, but another win over Michigan, the No. 3 seed, in the quarterfinals on Friday would.
“This is been a goal of ours since day one, to go out there and win that thing,” Haiby said. “So we’re excited and we’ll be ready to go.”