After a 10-day layoff and two postponed games against conference foes Rutgers and Illinois due to health and safety protocols within Nebraska’s program, the Husker women’s basketball team (13-4, 2-4 in Big Ten play) is scheduled to be back on the Pinnacle Bank Arena court this Thursday at 8 p.m. against the Wisconsin Badgers (5-13, 2-6).
Thursday’s contest marks the Huskers’ first since a 93-83 loss at Iowa on Jan. 16. The Badgers are near the bottom of the Big Ten standings and are 2-4 in their last six games. Nebraska will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak that included two losses to the Hawkeyes and one to No. 6 Indiana—some of the best competition the Big Ten has to offer.
“Boy, are we excited to be back on the court tomorrow,” Nebraska head coach Amy Williams said on Wednesday as she met with the media at PBA. “I think our team is just eager to get back out on the court doing what we love to do, and we’re grateful to have had so many people surrounding our program who have prioritized our health and wellbeing and have helped us get to the point where we’re now safely going to be able to return to basketball.”
Williams said it’s always a little nerve wracking for coaches who enter game day with players who weren’t able to practice routinely. At one point during the layoff, there were just six players able to practice due to a combination of injuries and health and safety protocol. Wednesday was the first day Williams said there were “several people in practice for the first time in a while.”
One way the Huskers can battle against any potential rust that there may be after not playing for 10 days is to lean on the team’s depth. Eleven players are averaging over 10 minutes per game. However, Williams said she wasn’t sure how many players will be available for the game against Wisconsin.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to have most of them available. It’ll all really depend on how things go today,” Williams said of Wednesday’s practice.
Looking to get back on track
How will Nebraska’s high-scoring offense come out after the long layoff? The Huskers currently rank ninth in the nation in scoring at 81.4 points per game. Against Big Ten opponents, that average has expectedly dipped to 75.3. One area of the game to watch will be how Wisconsin’s defense does. The Badgers haven’t been very good at keeping opposing Big Ten offenses from scoring—they’re allowing 70.6 points per game.
The Husker defense will be something to watch as well. In Nebraska’s two losses to Iowa, the Hawkeyes were able to rattle off 95 and 93 points. In the first game against Iowa, the Huskers were in position to win until late mistakes in transition defense in the fourth quarter allowed the Hawkeyes to regain the lead and earn the win.
After the game, Williams said her team won’t win many games against the top teams in the conference playing defense like it did that night.
“We did not defend the way we need to defend in order to do that against a high-powered offense like Iowa,” Williams said after the game.
In the second and most recent game with Iowa, the Huskers were called for 28 fouls while the Hawkeyes were whistled for seven. That foul discrepancy resulted in 34 free-throw attempts for the Hawkeyes—they made a whopping 31 of them—and only eight for the Huskers. Williams said that she was proud of the way her team fought while being without two of the best players on the team in Jaz Shelley and Sam Haiby. Shelley was in health and safety protocol while Haiby was out with a shoulder injury she sustained at Indiana.
But giving up another 90-plus points to the Hawkeyes didn’t sit well with the sixth-year head coach.
“I’m proud of our fight today, I really thought that we tried to do what we could do to control what we could control, and to try to overcome quite a bit of adversity out here and just continue to fight,” Williams said. “No, we’re not happy giving up 93 points, and no, we’re not happy with moral victories. Our program is to a point now where we expect to win ball games like that. I am proud of our fight.”
Haiby is still feeling soreness from the injury, Williams said, but is working to get back on the court as soon as she can.
“She’s working hard with our trainer every day to do everything she can to get healthy,” the coach said. “But each day it gets stronger and stronger, so we’re encouraged about where she’s at.”
What’s Wisconsin’s offense bring to the table? Looking at the Badgers on paper, not much. They’re averaging 58.6 points, which ranks 285th in the country. Against Big Ten defenses, they’re only scoring at a 57.2-points-per-game clip.
The Badgers’ top threat offensively, by far, is Julie Pospisilova, a 6-foot guard from Prague, Czech Republic, who’s averaging a team-high 14.6 points. Against Big Ten defenses, Pospisilova is averaging 15.4 points and is coming off a 23-point outing in Wisconsin’s 69-57 win at home against Penn State.
Other Badgers to keep an eye on are Sydney Hilliard and Katie Nelson. Hilliard is a 5-11 guard who’s averaging 12.6 points overall but 8.3 in conference play. Nelson, a grad student from Boston University, is the top 3-point shooter on the team at 39% (25-of-64) but is averaging just 6.8 points.
Nebraska should be able to control the boards on Thursday. Williams has been adamant about the Huskers needing to be one of the top rebounding teams in the Big Ten if they want to reach their goals.
“I thought our kids fought, but we really did not shoot the ball well and we talked before the ball game about, if you want to win on the road in the Big Ten Conference, you better rebound,” Williams said after the loss at Michigan State. “We got outrebounded by seven. That’s something that you can’t do.”
Nebraska is hauling down 43 rebounds per game, which ranks 31st in the country, while Wisconsin is averaging 29.9, 310th. The Badgers’ are getting outrebounded by an average of 7.5 boards per game and don’t have a player who’s recording over five a night—the Huskers have three such players, including Jaz Shelley (7.5), Alexis Markowski (6.4) and Bella Cravens (6.0).
On the injury front, it remains to be seen how long Haiby will be out of the starting lineup. True freshman Allison Weidner got the first start of her young Husker career against Iowa in Haiby’s absence. That night, Weidner gave her team strong minutes as she scored eight points with five assists in a career-high 21 minutes of action.
“I thought she did a great job of sparking us and being aggressive,” Williams said of Weidner, “continuing to push pace, play with confidence and I’m just thrilled with the way she’s progressing, showing confidence and continuing to just compete.”
Another injured starter, the 6-3 Cravens, is slowing working her way back to full strength after an ankle/foot injury. After missing the three games following the Michigan State loss, Cravens returned to the court at Iowa but only played two minutes. She was still able score three points and collect one rebound.
Speaking of Weidner and true freshmen, the Huskers have another who’s made a big impact in her first season on campus. Lincoln Pius X High School graduate Alexis Markowski has turned heads with her play that’s helped her become the Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times and the Tamika Catchings National Freshman of the Week.
The 6-3 forward is averaging a team-best 15.5 points per game against Big Ten competition. Markowski is coming off a career night against Iowa where she scored 27 points on an efficient 10-of-12 shooting from the field, which included a 6-of-7 effort from 3-point range.
“She has confidence to be able to knock down shots and whenever scoring opportunities come, then she’s going to take them,” Williams said of Markowski.
Thursday’s game will also be “Australia Night” at PBA. Nebraska has three Australians on the roster in Shelley, Isabelle Bourne and Ruby Porter. Shelley and Porter’s parents will be in attendance.
PBA will be hosting a doubleheader as the Nebraska men’s basketball team will host No. 11 Wisconsin at 4 p.m. The Husker women’s home game with Rutgers has been rescheduled to Tuesday, Feb. 1.