Seven minutes and 22 seconds on the clock. A 12-point lead for the home team on the scoreboard. The sound of Jay-Z saying “We ain’t even ‘posed to be here” to a mostly empty Pinnacle Bank Arena. Sometimes these things write themselves.
Nebraska, once again with only seven healthy players thanks to an ankle injury to Issie Bourne, absolutely wasn’t supposed to be there. Not with an Ohio State team ranked 15th in the country, unbeaten, and averaging 90 points a game.
The Buckeyes had 38 at that point. In the fourth quarter. After trailing for all of 29 seconds in their first six games, Ohio State was down double-digits to a Nebraska team missing its second-leading scorer and suffering through one of the worst shooting performances of the season from its leading scorer.
But “find a way” has been Nebraska’s brand of basketball all season. Before Saturday, it had led to upset wins over the 15th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats and 23rd-ranked Michigan State Spartans. On this day, it led to a 63-55 win over the Buckeyes, Nebraska’s (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) third top-25 upset in its last five games.
“I’m really proud of this team,” coach Amy Williams said after. “A lot of offseason we talked about defining what we want our team to look like, and I thought this performance tonight was the picture of what we’d like from our team—grit, toughness, playing every possession.”
In the absence of Bourne (14 points and seven boards a game), center Kate Cain had perhaps the best performance of her career. She poured in a career-high 22 points, piled up 12 rebounds, and rejected nine Ohio State shots.
“It’s very reassuring,” freshman guard Whitney Brown said of Cain’s defensive presence. “To be able to trust our back row … I think that’s something that really helps our defense. If we get beat, it’s gonna happen, but we know our posts have our back.
Cain, with the help of forward Bella Cravens, formed a backline that was damn near impenetrable. The Buckeyes hung tough through the first 35 minutes in large part due to hustle plays, but Nebraska’s initial-shot defense was as strong as its been. Cain altered everything and had moments where she covered two players at a time under the basket.
Cravens (six points, 14 boards) cleaned the glass when Cain went for blocks. Sam Haiby grabbed what was left over. The 5-foot-9 guard finished with eight boards to go with her first career double-double (11 points, career-high 10 assists). Said Cain: “How many point guards in the Big Ten are getting eight rebounds?”
Haiby was challenged with leading the team in rebounding in the offseason. She’d be doing just that if not for Cravens.
“Bella’s been huge,” Cain said. “It’s one of those things where she just comes out of nowhere all the time. She’s such an asset to this team. I remember a week or two into workouts in the summer and I was just like, ‘This girl can rebound.’ It’s insane.”
Nebraska got excellent play from its three freshmen, too. Brown continued her run of excellent form and caught fire from deep, drilling four triples on her way to a career-high 14-point scoring effort. Ruby Porter, starting on the wing for Bourne, missed five of her six shots, but only turned it over once, grabbed five boards and was a plus-seven in her 20 minutes. Annika Stewart, certainly more comfortable on offense than defense at this point, gave her best defensive performance of the year.
“I’m just so proud of those three,” Williams said. “What’s tell-tale is we may take a day off here or there and all of the sudden when I’m in my office I’ll hear shoes squeaking and balls bouncing and I peak out there and our three freshmen are playing 3-on-3 with our three scout guys and getting after it.
“That’s the type of work ethic that pays off.”
That’s what it’s been for Nebraska of late—make the game ugly and rely on fundamental team basketball, particularly on defense.
“Our team knows that’s going to be our best chance to try to have success and get wins,” Williams said. “It’s something they feel like we can commit to and we can control. I do feel incredibly proud to watch them when we put together those types of performances.”
Sticking to the gameplan always makes the coach happy.
“Our biggest thing for defense was to stop them in transition,” Cain said. “A big key was to make sure we had pressure on the ball from the get, right when they inbounded it.”
Part of that also means making Ohio State take it out of the basket more often than not.
To that end, Nebraska was patient on offense, using as much time off the shot clock as possible. For the vast majority of the game, it didn’t force much of anything. Seventeen assists on 24 made shots is exactly the way Williams likes to play. Nebraska took a lead at the 6:23 mark of the first quarter and never gave it back.
But as the fourth quarter wore on, as good teams often do, Ohio State made its run. Over a four-minute stretch (from 5:22 to 1:36), Nebraska committed six of its 19 turnovers. The Buckeyes pressed the issue and you could feel the game tightening.
Though its shooting percentage hovered in the low-20s all game and finished at 27%, Ohio State caught fire at the end. Over the final 5:11, the Buckeyes hit four of their five triples.
The lead dipped to single digits on a Buckeye layup, to which Brown responded with her fourth triple to send it back to 12. But Ohio State matched that with a 3 of its own 12 seconds later.
Nebraska went cold and Ohio State kept chipping away.
Down to nine.
Down to six.
Down to three.
With the clock ticking under a minute to play, a 14-point lead had been whittled to one possession. The momentum rested with the visitors. PBA was tense.
Haiby brought the ball up the floor, at that point shooting just 1-for-10 in the game. She surveyed, had Cravens on the low block to the left of the basket and Cain in position at the top of the key to give her a screen.
As Haiby turned the corner going to her right, Cravens floated to the 3-point line, bringing her defender with her. The Buckeyes didn’t want to leave Cain. Haiby, as she’s beginning to make a habit of doing, delivered the dagger.
Was 1-for-10 before this shot. The game had tightened. Buckeyes were threatening.
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) January 16, 2021
She converted the traditional three-point play, gave Nebraska back a two-possession lead, and the Buckeyes never got closer. An ice-in-her-veins kind of play.
“I think that shot against Northwestern, the game-winner, has really elevated her confidence,” Williams said. “She does so much for our team. That’s the thing I love about the way Sam is playing right now. She’s not letting 2-for-11 define her.
“I thought she was just special.”
Haiby’s progression into a clutch bucket-getter makes this style of play tenable. Nebraska can muck up the game and not be afraid of tight affairs at the end. During this run—four wins in five games—all of them have been contested at the end.
A young team, a depleted team ain’t supposed to be doing that consistently.
Williams’ team is here, though. And they don’t look like they’ll be going anywhere.
“We’re genuinely playing for each other,” Cain said. “We like to win. What can I say?”
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.