Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Husker Women Get Set for NCAA Tournament Game With Gonzaga

March 17, 2022

It’s pretty clear to Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams what the key to beating the Gonzaga Bulldogs is this: rebound the dang basketball.

For the first time since 2018, the Huskers (24-8, 11-7) are playing in the Big Dance. They’re a No. 8 seed and will play No. 9 Gonzaga (26-6, 16-2) on Friday at 2:30 p.m. in Louisville, Kentucky. It’ll be televised on ESPNews.

The Zags, coached by Lisa Fortier, are the West Coast Conference champs and rebound the heck out of the basketball. They rank sixth in the nation in rebounding margin, grabbing an average of 10.6 more boards than their opponent.

Limiting the amount of shots a team takes is a valuable trait to have.

“They’re an incredibly relentless rebounding team. They outrebound opponents by 10,” Williams said Wednesday inside the Devaney Center in Lincoln as she met with the media before the team flew to Kentucky. “The other thing is they run a lot of really good actions. I feel like when we look at some of their breakdowns, and the way they guard and man-to-man defense, they play a lot of the same way we would like to play ourselves.”

Nebraska guard Jaz Shelley is impressed with what she’s seen on tape of the Zags. They rank in the top 50 nationally in seven statistical categories, including the aforementioned rebounding margin (6th), free-throw percentage (18th), scoring margin (21st), 3-point field goal defense (25th), 3-point field goal percentage (26th), scoring defense (26th) and field goal percentage defense (50th).

Shelley said the way Gonzaga plays reminds her of European-style basketball, which she knows plenty about as she was chosen to the 23-player Australian Senior National Team (Opals) in 2020 and has other playing experience overseas. That style of play means lots of ball screens and set actions. That’s sort of a difference from what she’s seen in the big and physical Big Ten conference.

“I think we’re ready,” she said. “We went over a lot of their sets the last few days and I think we feel really comfortable at the moment.”

WATCH: Sights and Sounds from Nebraska’s Pre-Tournament Practice

Another trait about Gonzaga that caught Williams’ attention is that it’s an older and more experienced team than the Huskers are. The Zags’ roster lists two redshirt seniors, three traditional seniors and two juniors. There are eight combined freshmen and sophomores, and none of them are averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“I think that’s what makes them tough and challenging,” Williams said of the vet-heavy Bulldogs. “They’re very poised, they don’t get rattled easy when they’re down. They just continue to play at their pace and they make big plays, just like veterans do.”

Gonzaga has twin sisters from Houston who are two of the team’s top players in Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong. Both are averaging 10.8 points while Kaylynne is shooting 36% (51-of-141) from 3-point range and Kayleigh 35% (38-of-107). It’d be wise to not put them at the free-throw line—Kaylynne is shooting 90% (74-of-82) there while her sister is at 82% (77-of-93).

While the Truong twins pose problems, so does Melody Kempton, a 6-foot-1 senior post from Idaho. Kempton is averaging a team-high 10.9 points per game and 11.1 in conference play. She doesn’t pose a threat from behind the arc, at least not yet. She’s 0-for-1 from deep.

“She is tough. She can go right, she can go left, she’s very crafty,” Williams said of Kempton. “She can open face from kind of a pro post and take you off the dribble. She can play with her back to the basket. She’s just incredibly crafty and she’s a great offensive rebounder. They just work so well together, their high-low game, their post players pass it to each other very well. They play together, they’re smart. She’s just a tough matchup.”

Williams is sure Gonzaga will have scouted her team well. The Huskers have a nice inside-out presence at the forward positions with Alexis Markowski and Isabelle Bourne. Markowski, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is averaging a team-best 15.6 points per game in conference play and shooting 53% from 3. Bourne has turned up the heat lately and has improved her scoring average to 11.4 against Big Ten opponents while shooting the 3 at a 35% clip.

Shelley has noticed a difference in Markowski from the beginning of summer workouts until now. A lot has changed with the Pius X High School graduate.

“Coming in she was timid, which is weird because now she’s just so confident and I think everyone’s instilled that confidence in her to really let her flourish and shine,” Shelley said of Markowski. “She doesn’t act like a freshman, no, but we need that in our team. We need that toughness, that competitiveness, we need her little attitude, which is awesome.”

Opponents building game plans around trying to take away Nebraska’s talented posts has helped open opportunities for others offensively, like downhill-driving guards Sam Haiby and Allison Weidner. Haiby is stuffing the stat sheet in her fourth year in Lincoln—she’s averaging 10.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and four assists and becoming more confident once the fourth quarter hits. Weidner has well exceeded expectations in her first year on campus, scoring 7.4 points while dishing out 2.2 assists per night.

“We’ve got a great mix on our team this year of experienced players and some kind of young, and hungry and excited players,” Williams said, “and we’re finally figuring out how to kind of mesh those two things together and playing much better basketball.”

Then there’s Shelley, a second-team All-Big Ten selection who set the school record for most 3s in a game with nine against Illinois in the conference tournament. Shelley is a do-everything player—even at 5-9, she’s still grabbing 6.5 boards per game to go along with five assists and 13.1 points.

Shelley, a native of Moe, Australia, credits Williams with helping her get closer to her potential on the court.

“Coach Williams really put me in a position to be successful, and she knew what pieces needed to be filled with adding in some of the freshmen and myself,” Shelley said. “Rebounding—I had no idea. Playing defense, we kind of sat in a zone at my old school (Oregon). Being able to get up the floor and play defense. She’s kind of given me the challenge of taking the best off guard, which is something I’ve kind of taken under my wing and like doing.”

A new-look women’s NCAA Tournament 

First the first time in women’s college basketball history, 68 teams will play in the NCAA Tournament and it’s going to be called “March Madness”—just like the men get.

Shelley was a member of the Oregon team last March that was the first to expose the lack of resources provided to the women’s NCAA Tournament. Shelley’s teammate, Sedona Prince, took to social media to show how underfunded the women’s tournament was compared to what they men’s tournament received.

That sparked change, and the women’s tournament is expected to be more funded this season.

“It’s still shocking that it was never March Madness, and it’s incredible that people are realizing and making the changes with this stuff,” Shelley said. “The women’s tournament is getting so much coverage right now and I’m just super happy. I also embrace the Nebraska fans and how much they embrace women’s sports in general.”

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