Husker women’s basketball coach Amy Williams was on Sports Nightly Wednesday night for the 7 o’clock hour. Plenty of time to break down Monday night’s clutch win over Illinois on the road—Nebraska’s eighth win of the season and fifth in its last seven games—but the head ball coach also covered a few storylines for her group as the season wears on.
Here are the highlights:
>> Probably the most news-worthy moment of the evening was the quick update on the status of a pair of Husker starters. Guard Trinity Brady and forward Issie Bourne are both out and nursing ankle injuries. Brady hasn’t played since Dec. 6, when she turned her ankle late in a win over Idaho State. Bourne has missed the last three games after getting injured late against Michigan State.
“Every day Issie and Trinity get just a little bit better and I would say just continue to really be day-to-day,” Williams said. “We’re excited about that and the progress that they’re both making.”
Consider it more of a no-update update than anything else. The status has been unchanged for a bit now. Brady seems close, though. Early on she was in a boot with crutches, but has been walking free of any assistance along the bench area for the past few games. Bourne was also initially in a boot.
Nebraska seems to have avoided serious injury with Bourne, the team’s second-leading scorer at just over 14 points a night, but it has been severely short-handed in the frontcourt without her.
The only healthy and available post players on the roster are senior center Kate Cain, junior forward Bella Cravens, and freshman forward Annika Stewart. Cain and Cravens both start while Stewart comes off the bench.
Kendall Coley, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Minneapolis, enrolled early after signing with Nebraska out of the 2021 class. She’s cleared health and safety protocols and begun practicing with the team, but hasn’t yet made her debut. She’s eligible to play this season. A wing, she might be able to eat minutes once available as a small-ball four who can handle and space the floor, but Williams might be reluctant to throw her into that role against Big Ten post players just months into her college career.
>> Which makes the defensive growth Stewart has shown of late even more important.
A 20-minute, 12-point effort against Illinois on the road Monday represented a near-career-high for playing time for the 6-foot-3 freshman. Stewart has no compunction about shooting if given a sliver of space, and she’s helped the Husker second unit with her sweet stroke from beyond the arc several times throughout the year. She hit a career-high three 3s Monday against the Illini.
But it’s her defensive play of late that has her coach happy.
“She’s continuing to really improve in that area (defensively) and putting it as a focus,” Williams said. “She had one play where she swam around and got a steal when they were trying to post-feed inside and then another play where she took an offensive foul as she was working in post defense. Both of those plays were equally important as the 3s she was able to hit on the offensive side of the ball.”
At times early in the season, Stewart looked somewhat lost on defense, particularly in pick-and-roll settings and when having to rotate and help. It’s natural for young players to be further along offensively than defensively, especially post players. All a coach ever wants to see is effort and determination.
Stewart, to her credit, has given Williams just that.
“Anni and I had a conversation very, very early before we even started games and I said, ‘Generally speaking, freshmen are going to earn their minutes and their opportunities on the defensive side of the ball,’” Williams said. “I think she’s really buying into that and seeing that and understanding that and making a conscious effort to come in and try to watch film and talk to coaches and pay attention to scouting report defense and all that stuff because she’s seeing just how critically important that side of the ball is.”
>> Helps to have a veteran in practice that locks in defensively every day. Those types of players are tone-setters. They might be go-to scorers at the other end, but ball-stoppers can have a way of making good teams better in practice.
Mi’Cole Cayton might not be a go-to scorer at Nebraska, and she hasn’t even been game-ready for the season to this point, but she’s given Nebraska a boost in practice.
The grad transfer guard from Cal, Cayton has had to fight to overcome knee injuries that robbed her of the better part of her last three years at Berkley. “Things haven’t come easy to get on the road to get back out to the court,” Williams said. “To watch her preserver through a lot of that stuff, it was really rewarding.”
Cayton was cleared to play for Nebraska finally ahead of Monday nights game. She’d been practicing with the team and going through pregame warm-ups, but she hadn’t yet made her Husker debut before Monday night. Against the Illini, she played 19 minutes.
The eight-player rotation certainly played a role in that, but Williams played Cayton for just about all of the final six minutes of the game with the score close. She rewarded that faith with a steal and free throw with 15 seconds to play and the Huskers clinging to a one-point lead.
“We hadn’t seen Mi’Cole in a game situation but we’d been easing her back into being cleared to play in game situations and we’d seen enough just in the limited practice she’d been available to,” Williams said. “She is a very good defender and she can be very disruptive. So, in those situations I felt really confident with what we needed out of her. It was fun to watch her come through in that way and find ways to contribute.”
Since the game’s end, fans have compared Cayton, who wears No. 5, to the last defensive stopper who wore the Husker No. 5—Nicea Eliely.
“Back in the olden days, I wore No. 5,” Williams quipped. “I don’t know why nobody’s comparing me to either one of those two. I tell people all the time I was the O.G. No. 5, but for some reason I don’t know I’m never compared to Nicea or Mi’Cole.”
Safe to say Williams is enjoying what has been a challenging but so far rewarding season. Cayton’s play is the latest feel-good storyline in a string of them.
“She’s such a competitor, it’s not just enough to be back out there” Williams said. “She wants to contribute. She wants to find a way to make a difference on the court.”
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.