At times it’s been the third quarter. At times, rebounding. At times, turnovers. Against Indiana a few weeks ago, Nebraska put itself in a 20-point hole in the first quarter. Whatever the “thing” is that had cost Nebraska nine of its previous 12 games, the Huskers seemed determined on Senior Day to end things before they really even got started.
No third-quarter crashes. No extra possessions fueling comeback runs. Nebraska went up 28-13 on Illinois (11-16, 2-14 Big Ten) after one quarter, and extended that lead to 30 before the halftime break. It rained down 3-pointers on one of the worst teams in the conference and locked down defensively.
Head coach Amy Williams was able to address her four seniors in a happy mood following an 80-58 win to close out the home slate for the regular season.
“A good way to celebrate four pretty special seniors in our program,” Williams said after the postgame festivities had run their course. “At this point, our team has really been trying to look for that breakthrough opportunity. I thought in the first half we played closer to what our team is capable of playing like. I was really proud of the effort coming out of the gates.
Nebraska’s plan of attack was what it usually is: establish center Kate Cain with touches on the interior and then move the ball around to find open shooters. Cain got the action started with a hook shot over her left shoulder, then senior point guard Hannah Whitish opened the floodgates from beyond the arc.
She hit two triples in the first quarter. Her teammates his four others. A team that averages just over six makes a game from outside was 11-for-16 from range by halftime. Leigha Brown off the bench hit four of her first five triples, finishing the first 20 minutes with a game-leading 17 points.
Nebraska had 17 assists on 21 made shots in that first half.
“I know we are kind of a little bipolar. At Ohio State in our last game we were 0-for our first 18 threes and then today we were 11-for our first 16 threes,” Williams joked. “We try really hard to be a team that doesn’t dictate how we play the game on if the ball is going through the basket or not, but to say there’s not a little extra pep in the step when you’re seeing the ball go in would be a lie.
“I thought we moved the basketball, we took care of the ball in the first half—which was a huge point of emphasis for us—and then because of that we were able to get good team shots at the basket.”
Brown finished with 22 points, matching a career-high with four made triples. Whitish hit four of her own, adding seven assists and five boards in 30 minutes with just one turnover. Sophomore forward Ashtyn Veerbeek matched a season-high for scoring with 15 points (6-of-8 from the field, 2-of-3 from deep). Six different women hit a triple.
Nebraska finished with 24 assists on 31 made baskets, the kind of ball movement Williams wants. Asked if it was more high-level shot-making or high-level creation, Veerbeek said they went hand-in-hand today. The Huskers got good looks for each other.
A mix of matchup zone and full-court trapping from Illinois slowed Nebraska’s offense in the second half, giving way to a 14-point third quarter and a 10-point fourth quarter. Illinois never got the margin under 20, though.
The Illini are 2-14 now in conference play this season with nine of those losses coming by 20 points or more. It’s an offensively challenged team. The defensive attention to detail from Nebraska slipped in the third quarter as well (turnovers played a part), when Illinois started finding openings in the corners and exploits in pick-and-roll coverage, but the damage had been done. Nebraska put this to bed in the first half.
Which meant Williams was able to give her seniors a curtain call as the clock wound under a minute to play.
“It’s really rewarding, particularly for this class,” Williams said. All four seniors were on the floor together so Nebraska could sub them out one at a time. The crowd got to its feet. Cheers rained down for Grace Mitchell and then Kristian Hudson and then Nicea Eliely and then Whitish.
“Three of the four have been with us since we first got here and have stuck through a lot. Highs and lows, ups and downs, (they) stayed committed to the program. Even bringing Kristian Hudson in and seeing the adversity she’s had to go through in two years, injuries and missed games and ups and downs. To have it play out for them that way is pretty special.
Now, after effectively saying goodbye to a senior class that features two key starters, Nebraska has to turn around and play one more regular-season game. A trip to Bloomington, Indiana, is coming on Thursday, Feb. 27, when Nebraska will face Indiana (20-7, 10-5 Big Ten) to close out the year.
The Hoosiers, back on Feb. 9 in Pinnacle Bank Arena, built up a 26-6 first-quarter led on Nebraska, watched NU come storming back in the third and fourth quarters, and then snuffed the comeback late to win by four. That was the fourth loss in a four-game losing streak the likes of which Nebraska hadn’t yet experienced.
Even though it’ll feel a little weird, Saturday’s game could be the perfect set-up for the real finale.
“I think the biggest confidence boost is just that we watched a lot of film, our kids have seen things that we need to improve, and then for them to really work hard on that for two days and see that pay off, that’s the biggest confidence boost that we needed,” Williams said. “It’s really no coincidence that by the time I walked into shootaround, Leigha (Brown) was dripping in sweat.
“Those are the kinds of things that are confidence boosters for our team.”
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.