With a 12-12 record on the year, a 9-10 record in conference play, and a quarterfinal heartbreak to end the Big Ten Tournament run, Nebraska is now waiting. Will the WNIT come calling? Perhaps. The Huskers pass the eye test—they play excitingly competitive games and have a bona fide star in Sam Haiby. But Nebraska also has some bad losses and missed wins late in the year it needed.
While we wait to find out if Nebraska can keep going—which head coach Amy Williams said after Thursday’s loss to Maryland that Nebraska does in fact want to keep going—I wanted to offer some big picture/end-of-the-year thoughts on this season.
This was perhaps Amy Williams’ best coaching job to date as the leader of this Nebraska program. She had teams that were 21-11 and 17-13, so from a record standpoint, there have been more successful seasons, but Williams deserves a tremendous amount of credit and recognition for the work she had to do this year.
Upon bringing her team back to campus, she had to balance preparing for a basketball season while allowing time for a team to heal a little spiritually. Some will roll their eyes, but Williams is married to a Black man, she has Black men and women on her coaching staff, she has young Black women playing for her. The events of the past summer were emotionally tumultuous for the team.
By all accounts Nebraska grew stronger together through their embracing of the idea they could lower basketball on the totem pole for a minute. Williams set the table for that to happen.
Practice on the court looked different than it ever has. Nebraska went days at a time without enough healthy players to scrimmage five-on-five. This was once again a new team after surprise offseason departures and injuries. It’s hard to build cohesiveness in lineups when you’re constantly shuffling.
Before the season, Williams joked she’d auditioned sophomore forward Issie Bourne at the three spot, and then the season rolled around and Williams immediately needed to play that card.
Trinity Brady started the first two games on the wing, then went down with an injury late in the second game of the year. She hasn’t played since. Nebraska built a ton into its offense to highlight Bourne’s comfort and skill in the post.
Then she was suddenly on the wing with two non-shooters manning the four and five spots, and Nebraska had to scrap a lot.
At one point, the only bench options were a true freshman forward and a true freshman walk-on guard. Brady played only two games. Texas Tech transfer guard Nailah Dillard missed the entire season. Cal transfer guard Mi’Cole Cayton missed the first 11 games. Ruby Porter missed two games early. Bourne missed four games in January.
Consistency was nowhere to be found, not in her rotation, not in her practice availability. And yet Nebraska looked like one of the toughest teams in the league for a month stretch mid-year.
NU upset a ranked Northwestern team twice. It beat Rutgers. It lost by just a bucket on the road against Michigan. It upset a ranked Michigan State team on the road, a result that may have scared the Spartans out of the second meeting. It upset Ohio State at home.
Then on Thursday, it held fourth-quarter leads over the conference’s premier team in Maryland.
This Husker team was able to play with anyone regardless of what was going on, and as adversity kept hitting, Nebraska kept getting stronger, it seemed. The Huskers lost six of their last eight to close the season and then did what they did at the conference tournament.
Williams built a roster on the fly with pieces that nicely complemented each other. She found hidden gems in Annika Stewart and Whitney Brown, took a chance on Mi’Cole Cayton when few others would and saw that pay off, pushed the right lineup buttons at the right time, and turned the keys to the car over to Sam Haiby and watched her just grow and grow and grow. On top of all that, she’s got one of the best recruiting classes in years joining the fold this offseason.
In a wild and unpredictable year, Williams asked her team to handle the curveball. She did so herself brilliantly.
The senior center at the middle of Nebraska’s defense has a pretty impactful decision to make. Should Kate Cain decide to move on to the next chapter of her playing career, she’s got a shot at getting drafted into the WNBA. A 6-foot-5 shot blocker with a high release on her jumper and strong defensive instincts, Cain’s a promising prospect.
But… if she wanted to use the extra year of eligibility given by the NCAA, the ceiling next season could be pretty high for Nebraska.
Factor in another year of development for Bourne and Stewart, health for Bella Cravens, and incoming freshman center Alexis Markowski, and Nebraska could have a deep and talented frontcourt.
Cain could mentor Markowski for a year. Stewart down the stretch of her first season showed a lot of growth defensively, and you have to think Cain played a part in that.
The New York native is Nebraska’s all-time leader in blocked shots. She’s been so critical to what Nebraska does at both ends of the floor. Of course Williams would want another year with her roaming the paint.
I don’t have an indication one way or the other. But I know Cain loves Nebraska, and Nebraska loves Cain. And her career deserves to end properly with a true Senior Day send-off and fans in the stands to let her know how appreciated she’s been.
The Stage is Sam’s
People who have watched Sam Haiby game in and game out know how impactful she can be. When defenses aren’t loading up to wall her off, she’s as good a one-on-one scorer as there is in the conference.
The only flaw in her game entering the season was her perimeter shot. She could hit 3s, but the consistency was still something of a work in progress.
This season she has shot 39% from 3. She’s hitting off-the-dribble 3s. She’s reseting when defenders go under the screen and rising up with confidence. Haiby’s first step is so quick and her ability to flip shots up and in in the lane means most defenders are going to go under the screen. If she continues to hit those 3s, she’s going to become a serious problem to guard.
Which is exactly what she was on Thursday against Maryland. She hit four of her seven triples and scored 24 points, powering Nebraska’s upset bid. Early on in the fourth quarter, Maryland had absolutely no answer for her.
She scored 10 of Nebraska’s first 12 points to take a lead over the Terps. National folks on Twitter were tuning in. Local folks were singing her praise.
It was the ninth time this season she scored 20 points or more. For awhile now, though, Haiby has sort of skirted under the radar. She was a second-team All-Big Ten selection this season who, for a stretch, looked like a worthy inclusion to the first team.
This time feels a little different because of the stakes. This was the conference tournament, this was a national audience, and this was one of the best teams in the country she did it against. A day after scoring 19 points in a win over Minnesota, she’s carving up Maryland.
“I thought that when she hit the game-winner earlier in the season against Northwestern it really seemed to be a kind of springboard that aided in her confidence,” Williams said after the game. “And now to do it against a team that’s probably gonna be a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament if not one of the top 2 seeds, and to do that when they were giving as much traffic and attention to her, I think that’s something that should really build confidence.
“She scored her 1,000th point as a Husker today. So, a lot of things that I’m really hopeful will continue to raise Sammi’s expectations of herself and people’s alertness to what a special player she is.”
Regardless of what the team looks like around her next season—how much help she will or won’t have—one thing seems clear right now: Haiby is ready for stardom. The stage is officially her’s.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.