Nebraska comes out firing in the first quarter one night, then starts cold the next two games. A strong second or third quarter is followed by an off fourth quarter, then, a week later, a strong fourth quarter all but negates poor play in the first three. Consistency has been lacking all season for the Huskers. Understandable, given the youth of the team, but nerve-wracking for head coach Amy Williams nonetheless.
Maybe that’s to blame for Nebraska’s trouble closing out tight ball games.
Williams won’t have to worry about that at least for another few days, though. Sunday afternoon marked maybe one of the best performances of the season for her team. Nebraska (12-14, 7-8 Big Ten) earned a wire-to-wire 82-71 win over No. 24 Michigan State (17-8, 7-7 Big Ten) that included ball movement, opportunistic defense and red-hot shooting.
Point guard Hannah Whitish said the team wanted to play inside-out. Michigan State likes to help off and Nebraska knew it had the shooters to make that brand of defense pay. Freshman Leigha Brown, making her second start of her Husker career, got the party started just 21 seconds into the game.
A triple from the wing fell for the Huskers’ leading scorer, then another a minute later. Then sophomore wing Taylor Kissinger, who Nebraska wasn’t even sure would be available for the game (flu), came in and canned a triple. Then junior point guard Hannah Whitish got one of her own to drop. The Huskers raced to a 27-point first quarter and nine-point lead thanks to five made 3s, nine assists on 11 made shots and 55 percent shooting.
The offense sagged in the second quarter and the Huskers turned it over eight times, but the defense was there to make up for it. Sparty was held to eight points in the second and Nebraska took a 42-26 lead into the halftime break.
Nebraska went for 20 again in the third quarter and opened the fourth and final frame up with 22 points.
For five minutes, Michigan State made its run. For five minutes the Huskers looked out of sorts offensively. A 7-0 run to open the quarter and another 9-0 run after five quick Husker points meant that cushy lead had all but evaporated. With 4:05 to play, Michigan State had cut it to an eight-point game.
Was this going to be another incomplete game? Another strong effort early undone by poor execution late? In the past, it has been poor execution, poor shot selection and poor ball security that would hurt the Huskers late.
This time, center Kate Cain worked her way inside with three minutes to play and dropped in two points. Thirty seconds later, Nebraska sprung Whitish on the left wing for a wide-open jumper. Cain got a block, Nebraska hit a few more shots and instead of crumbling late, the Huskers kept Michigan State out of reach. Four turnovers in the first five minutes helped the Spartans get back in; Nebraska had none over a four-minute stretch to close things out and seal the win.
Whitish led the way offensively with 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting with five assists and four boards, but she was one of five Huskers in double-figures scoring. Brown added 14 points (4-for-5 from deep), five boards and three assists while Kissinger put in 12, junior guard Nicea Eliely had 10 points and four steals and senior forward Maddie Simon came off the bench to score 10.
Six Husker players combined to hit a season-high 12 triples as Nebraska shot 50 percent overall from the field, the best shooting performance since Dec. 15.
On the other side, Nebraska forced 23 turnovers, tying a season-high.
As close to a complete game as Nebraska has gotten all season.
“We talked as a team about just wanting to play one-game seasons from here on out and be the very best version of ourselves today,” Williams said after the game. “So, we feel great about the fact we’re 1-0 today and we were able to give this fantastic Sunday crowd a win.”
Next up for Nebraska is a trip to Evanston and a date with Northwestern. The Huskers will be looking to avenge a 58-54 loss at home on Jan. 24 (in which NU held a 54-53 lead with 37 seconds left). Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. CT.
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.