Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Not Satisfied: Husker Women Aim To Continue Having Fun, Success In Big Ten

December 28, 2021

There may or may not have been tears shed at the Nebraska women’s basketball white elephant gift exchange last Monday at head coach Amy Williams’ house.

It’s true—the Huskers are not only competitive on the court, but off of it as well. That family-like dynamic is one of the many reasons Williams and her staff are having so much fun coaching this group that’s currently one of five undefeated teams in college basketball, joining No. 1 South Carolina (12-0), No. 4 Arizona (10-0), No. 25 North Carolina (11-0) and Colorado (11-0).

“I just feel so blessed to coach this team,” Williams said. “I’m loving coaching them. They absolutely love each other. It’s a hoot every time we get together. We’re hoping we can keep progressing forward and become the best basketball team that we’re capable of becoming.”

Three games of scoring over 100 points is fun. So was going to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and beating a previously undefeated Wake Forest team by 26 points in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, or earning a hard-fought win over a pesky Minnesota team on the road.

Watching this team grow and play with joy on their faces is what has been the best part of the 12-0 start for Williams.

“Watching their interactions and the way they’re having fun on the bench, on the court, in practice and at my house at Christmas parties,” Williams said. “They just genuinely enjoy being around each other, enjoy their interactions with each other, and that just brings me incredible joy.”

But the season isn’t over. The non-conference schedule is, but bigger and better teams await. The Huskers kick off their Big Ten slate Thursday at Michigan State (7-6). To achieve their goals, consistency will be key.

Sometimes it’s a challenge to find ways of pushing teams to be closer to their true potential, or more consistent. It’s not that challenging with this edition of the Huskers, Williams said. They’re a tight-knit group that has lofty goals. They know the games will be much harder than they have been.

A team that keeps a level head and understands there’s more work to be done can be a dangerous one to play against.

“They’re excited about the successes we’re having and have had up to this point, but certainly not satisfied,” Williams said. “So it hasn’t been as tough of a challenge for me yet with this group. And I think as we’re wrapping up the non-conference slate and getting ready for Big Ten play, we know there’s a huge challenge facing us.”

Nebraska’s coaches can only do so much. At the end of the day, it’s the players who are on the court shooting and defending. Leaders need to, and have, emerged for Williams’ crew. But it’s not just one player—there’s a nice balance.

There are the usual suspects you’d expect stepping up in the leadership department—Sam Haiby, Isabelle Bourne and Jaz Shelley. Those are three experienced players who have played multiple seasons of big-time basketball in big-time conferences and know how competitive it can be.

That trio understands the intensity level gets bumped up a few notches.

“You need to stay consistent, and it’s not about being one-hit wonders or having a great game here or there,” Williams said. “It’s about, ‘Can you do that consistently,’ and I think they’re constantly messaging that.”

But the story of the Nebraska women this season hasn’t been about just the older, experienced players. It’s the young talent inserted into the roster that has been contributing.

Alexis Markowski has been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice. She’s recorded back-to-back double-doubles against Indiana State and Drake. She’s averaging 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds off the bench. It’s been a heck of a start of the former Nebraska Gatorade State High School Girls Basketball Player of the Year who won back-to-back Class A state championships at Lincoln Pius X.

Then there’s Allison Weidner, a small-town girl from Humphrey St. Francis who’s showing she can play on the big stage. Weidner is averaging 5.1 points and 3.8 boards. She’s dished out 34 assists—third-most on the team behind Shelley (57) and Haiby (43)—but has only turned the ball over 10 times. For true freshmen who are learning and adjusting to the speed of the college game, the turnovers tend to add up. Not in Weidner’s case.

There’s second-year players Kendall Coley and Annika Stewart. Coley is developing her offensive game—she’s shooting 40% from 3-point range and 83% from the free-throw line—while evolving as a lockdown defender, too. Stewart is coming off a career-high 21 points against Wyoming. During that win over the Cowgirls, Stewart flashed what kind of a threat she can be as a 6-foot-3 sharpshooter who’s knocking down 40% of her 3s and putting stress on opposing post players who have to guard her on the perimeter.

Markowski, Weidner and Stewart are just three examples of players coming from winning programs and taking what they learned to the next level.

“They expect to win and have that winning mentality, and it’s just a really good combination of just optimism and high belief and also the realism of what it’s going to take to make that happen,” Williams said.

While it may be a pleasant surprise that first- and second-year players are contributing at a high level on the court, they’ve been a key part of the chemistry off it, too. That hasn’t been much of a surprise to Williams. She got a sense of what it could be like when all five of the newcomers were on a zoom call during the recruiting process.

“Oh my gosh,” Williams said with a smile as she recalled that zoom call. “They were talking about the TikToks that they were doing and we were just in stitches as a coaching staff. There’s a lot of personality there. I’m not sure, just in all the individual recruitment that we felt like that, but once we go them all together we could see how they just really feed off each other in a positive way. They have great chemistry, and they have from the start. That’s a really positive effect on our team.”

The younger players bring energy to the team and help keep things light in the program. That’s something that the coaches welcome, too. It’s a long season, and going through it without smiling and laughing regularly isn’t what you want for a program.

Williams said she never knows what’s going to come out of the players’ mouths sometimes, but that’s a good thing.

“Those grind days where you’re getting on the line and ready to do the same warmup that you’ve done a 100 times before and get ready for practice, you need that opportunity to kind of guard against the complacency that comes with routine,” Williams said.

A good way to guard against complacency is a mindset to improve. To compete. These Huskers are doing that, whether it’s on the court or in a white elephant gift exchange.

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