I’m not sure what version of Nebraska women’s basketball will show up to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday afternoon.
The Huskers will welcome Ohio State — the No. 3 team in the country — to Lincoln for what may be Nebraska’s biggest test yet. The Buckeyes are undefeated, having needed to work through some close games but still thriving at 17-0. Nebraska has shown it has the ability to challenge an opposing side of that caliber, but delivery on that is no sure thing.
Through the 17 games the Huskers have played, there’s been a wide range of performance. They’ve already seen wins among the most impressive of Amy Williams’ time as head coach, along with losses among the most disappointing performances of her tenure. The former came in a 23-point road win over Maryland, while the latter was a egregiously bad shooting performance against Rutgers.
Some of this is understandable. For most of the season, the Huskers have constantly been shifting players in and out of lineups and still have multiple getting acclimated.
The month of December in particular was busy on this front. In seven games, Nebraska rolled out four different starting lineups, while also adding players into the rotation off the bench. A key starter in Allison Weidner is out for the season, and Trinity Brady, another starter to begin the year, hasn’t played since Dec. 1 with no real timetable for a return.
Nebraska hoped to slowly work Sam Haiby back into the lineup after her offseason knee injury, but the circumstances have done their best to keep that from happening. In one of her first games back, she was called on to play 26 minutes in the triple-overtime win against Kansas, and has since been in the starting lineup as a result of Weidner’s injury.
The team’s two freshman have also had to navigate important roles right away. Two-sport athlete and forward Maggie Mendelson has played just six career games after finishing out the volleyball season. Guard Callin Hake didn’t even play against Kansas, but has followed that up with three double-digit performances.
She’s quickly become one of the top options off the bench, hitting tough layups and nailing 45% of her 3-point attempts in the last four games. It’s not out of the ordinary for newcomers to take some time to get acclimated, but the jump Hake has appeared to take with her recent play has been fascinating.
Things have settled a bit for the Huskers, as they’ve had the same 10 players available for each of the past four matchups. Still, it’s difficult to predict what will happen in a given game. Jaz Shelley, the team’s top player, has produced incredibly memorable showings like her 14 consecutive points in overtime against Mississippi State, but also has had stretches of being shut down as a scorer like she was in back-to-back games against Indiana and Rutgers.
The junior guard has been emblematic of the team’s offense as a whole, and you could say that’s by design. With Haiby out for the start of the year and still getting back to full strength now, Shelley has carried a remarkably high load, playing 34.6 minutes per game with a significant amount of her rest coming when games are out of reach late. She’s 10th in the country in assists per game, and has a huge impact on the offense even when she’s not the one scoring the points.
One of the lone points of consistency for Nebraska has been its defense, however. The Huskers are second in the Big Ten in scoring defense, and have been fantastic on that end recently despite their offensive struggles. In the last three games, they’ve allowed just over 56 points per game in regulation, although Indiana dominated an overtime period.
All in all, the unpredictability has been enjoyable because the season has still been good for the Huskers. They’re still an NCAA Tournament-level team with multiple wins against top 25 opponents, despite currently being projected as one of the last teams to make the bracket.
Against Ohio State, Nebraska’s unpredictability makes the game one worth watching. The Buckeyes, still playing without one of their best players, are the better team, but the Huskers could certainly force a competitive game at home. The crowd on Saturday could be a great one, as Nebraska’s had strong attendance this year and the home matchup against Michigan drew over 8,000 fans.
There’s a decent chance this matchup will show something we’ve rarely seen before from Nebraska. That can be for better or worse, shown well by the team’s 0-for-21 3-point shooting start against Rutgers and Kendall Moriarty’s wild halfcourt shot coming just a single game apart.
Moriarty’s shot likely won’t be repeated, but anyone with an interest in watching good basketball will hope for something more toward that end of that spectrum.