The best game Kate Cain has played in a Nebraska uniform?
“Absolutely,” head coach Amy Williams said after a 72-58 Nebraska win over 24th-ranked Minnesota Saturday night.
Cain, the Huskers’ junior center, deflected and said they played strong team defense. It was a good team effort. Her individual performance felt good, but the win felt better. Typical stuff from one of the more selfless members of Nebraska’s team.
But Cain can dominate whenever she wants to. And she can do it on either end. She did it against the Gophers, to the tune of a 19-point, 15-rebound, six-block performance that included zero turnovers and only one personal foul.
From the game’s opening moments, Cain’s fingerprints were everywhere. She blocked Minnesota’s first shot attempt of the night, then at the other end knocked down a straightaway jumper from just a step inside the 3-point line (read: outside her usual range of comfort) as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.
“Kate was incredible tonight,” Williams said. “I thought she was the key. She really sparked us offensively and defensively. Early in the ballgame she played smart defensively, blocked some shots that I think helped us feel confident to get out to 3-point shooters in transition and know that she was going to be a back-up secondary defender in the paint. Really set the tone for our defense tonight.”
Minnesota’s leading scorer, Destiny Pitts, a wing player averaging 17 points a game heading into the day, had just four points on seven shots at the half. Nebraska’s gameplan was to deny her touches and then crowd her airspace if she was able to get the ball. That kind of aggressive approach only works if you trust the anchor in the middle.
A huge presence, guard Hannah Whitish called Cain.
Minnesota was 16-for-45 in the paint. A team that entered the day averaging 80 didn’t even crack 60.
Cain had individual moments of brilliance on the other end, too. A turnaround jumper in the fourth quarter that fell despite a defender all up in her face and a foul call. An entry pass with the shot-clock winding down that was almost immediately dumped off to a cutting Nicea Eliely that led to free throws. Nebraska had two score 17 a piece, Whitish and sophomore guard Sam Haiby, but Cain was the star of the show.
Minnesota had no answer for her. Nebraska’s usual starting five, one that features a two-big flex look with Cain and sophomore forward Ashtyn Veerbeek (just as comfortable out on the perimeter as she is inside) forced Minnesota to change. Cain, when on the floor, was like gravity for Minnesota’s offense; she ended the day a game-high plus-19.
Nebraska, on the other hand, had counters for everything. Minnesota cut double-digit leads down time and time again—an 11-point lead down to four, then a 15-point lead to nine, then a 13-point lead to seven—but Nebraska kept shutting the door.
An 8-0 run to end the first half gave Nebraska breathing room. A 10-0 run in the third quarter blew the game open.
“It’s what really good teams do, they answer, especially at home,” Gopher head coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We felt like there was a couple of times where we could have gotten a couple of stops and it just didn’t go our way. They answered every run we had.”
It’ll go in the books as an upset, technically speaking. Minnesota was ranked. At 11-2 entering the day, the Gophers had some attention. Now, that should probably shift to the Huskers. Nebraska, who entered the day also sitting at 11-2, got to stay in the win column. It answered Williams’ call after a gut-punch of a finish in East Lansing last Tuesday.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Williams said. "We talked over the last couple days that early in the Big Ten season we were going to have an opportunity to really test the character of our team, to see how we would bounce back after a very disappointing road loss in overtime at Michigan State. I thought our kids really responded well.”
Nebraska had won six straight before that Michigan State game, en route to the best start of the Amy Williams tenure. Wisconsin comes to town Thursday, Jan. 9, for a 7 p.m. game; Nebraska can start another winning streak then. The Badgers are 9-5. Nebraska will, technically, be the hunted in that one.
But it won’t play like it.
“I think we always come in with a mentality of playing with a chip on our shoulder, that if we play hard, if we play 40 minutes of great basketball, we can beat anyone we come up against,” Haiby said. “So, like you said, it’s going down as an upset but we feel like we can play with anyone right now.”
Especially so if Cain, with her back-to-back-to-back double-doubles, keeps this up.
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.