Amy Williams wants to go to the NCAA Tournament.
She went in her second season at Nebraska, the fruits of an ahead-of-schedule ’17-18 team that won 21 games on the year and 11 of 16 in an always-challenging Big Ten conference. But that team was bounced in the first round. Rebounded off the court. The boards stuck with the Husker head coach all offseason. With a roster reset in ’18-19 and a heavy reliance on youth, Nebraska lost more games than it won and Williams spent this offseason thinking about something different.
Amy Williams doesn’t have to go to the NCAA Tournament to save a job or anything like that—it’s clear what she has and is building. And she’s saying all the right things when it comes to expectations. “We’ve put the focus on the process.” Get better one day at a time. Don’t worry about wins.
For a group, though, that lost 10 games by two possessions or less last season, there is a sense of urgency.
“The biggest thing we’re hoping they learned is that sense of urgency you have to have for each and every possession,” Williams said Monday, with the start of her fourth year just a few weeks away. “I think there were times where our young kids would be very hooked up defensively and other times they’d let up on one possession or didn’t stick to scouting-report defense on one possession and that one basket could have been the difference in a win or a loss for us.”
This is a fun team to coach for Williams and her staff. In part because the group, which features seven underclassmen and six uppers, took it upon themselves this summer to fix issues that plagued the team last season.
The team’s “Bring IT” mantra for the season, what they want to say every time they break a huddle, was created by the players. They were the ones that emphasized “investment” (the I) and “togetherness (the T).
It’s a perfect encapsulation of what the Williams tenure has looked like to this point. The coach has no issues using a deep rotation, an unusual comfort in knowing every seat on her bench has at least a few droplets of sweat on the hardwood floor in front of it. Nebraska goes 11-deep sometimes. Williams will throw out three lineups before the first quarter is even over.
“There’s so much talent there, there’s so much versatility there,” Williams said. “We never really know every practice day who’s going to shine today. We give out that Top Dawg toughness award at the end of every practice and it’s pretty much been a different player every day that’s coming away with that.”
Nebraska had positional redundancies last season. Kate Cain and Ashtyn Veerbeek quickly revealed themselves as the Huskers’ two best post players but they couldn’t play together. Guards Nicea Eliely and Sam Haiby offer a lot of the same things—slasher mentality, inconsistent shooting, dogged defense.
An overseas trip to Spain in August helped in the usual ways, bonding, on-court chemistry, but it allowed Williams to work on introducing staple plays early, so in camp, the Huskers could focus more on a motion offense and just playing.
Haiby, a freshman guard last season and Nebraska’s second-leading scorer, improved her off-ball defense this season (“Off the ball she sometimes would lose her focus as a freshman,” Williams said) and the coaching staff force-fed her opportunities to run the show at the point with and without Hannah Whitish on the floor.
Whitish’s 3-point shooting and Haiby’s off-the-dribble ability to break down a defender should complement each other nicely. This season could see more of the two guards sharing the floor.
Eliely, a senior, wants to earn a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team.
Veerbeek, a sophomore, worked on being more of a floor-spacer, so she could share minutes with Cain without wrecking offensive spacing.
Leigha Brown, another sophomore who averaged 10.2 points a game in league play as a first-year wing but would too often swing between eight and 20-point performances, worked on consistency. Nebraska is going to ask her to be an offensive focal point. “She has come back this summer and offseason with a different mentality,” Williams said.
The only good thing about losing 10 down-to-the-wire games is you played in 10 down-to-the-wire games. (Nebraska played in 14, actually, winning four of them.) That experience for a team this young is bound to help down the line. Mistakes made in closing moments last season will ring in their heads in similar situations this year.
A closed scrimmage against Arizona State precedes a Nov. 2 exhibition against Rogers State, Williams’ first gig as a head coach. Four days later, the Huskers will open the season against Alabama A&M at home. Williams won’t mandate a tournament berth or a win total. The Huskers don’t feature a single player on the recently released preseason All-Big Ten teams and Nebraska wasn’t picked by media or coaches to finish in the conference’s top five.
Williams feels she has something, though. A team with leadership but still promise. A team with a potential defensive fortitude but still offensive firepower (went this entire time without mentioning the Huskers have one of the best shooters in the country in junior forward Taylor Kissinger).
“That balance,” Williams says, “is something that has the potential to make this team special.”
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.