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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

With Its Core Returning, Nebraska Women’s Basketball Will Have Plenty of Expectations Next Season

May 24, 2022

The disappointment in Amy Williams’ voice was easy to detect.

Her Nebraska women’s basketball team had just been beaten 68-55 by Gonzaga in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament, and she had to answer questions about it behind a microphone in a postgame press conference.

“We came here to win this game and to advance in the tournament, so really disappointed,” Williams said March 18 in Louisville, Kentucky. “Disappointed at the loss and disappointed that we feel like we’re better than we showed. Mostly disappointed that it’s over. It’s been a really special group, I’m incredibly proud of the season we’ve had. Just sad and disappointed that this group, it’s over for us.”

That was then, but this is now.

The Huskers’ roster has seen a bit of a shakeup this offseason, but the team’s core returns for the 2022–23 campaign, which is setting up to be one full of expectations after considering who is coming back. ESPN has taken notice, ranking Nebraska No. 20 in its way-too-early poll:

The starting five is back

The starting five that Williams rolled with near the end of the season are all returning, including super senior Sam Haiby, juniors Jaz Shelly and Isabelle Bourne and sophomores Alexis Markowski and Allison Weidner. Also back is junior Trinity Brady and sophomores Annika Stewart, Kendall Coley, Kendall Moriarty and Nailah Dillard.

Those 10 players combined to account for 64.2 of the team’s 77.82 scoring average from last season, or 82%.

The departures

The Huskers did have departures, and that count is at six as of May 23.

Bella Cravens, a strong post presence whose midseason ankle injury opened the door for Markowski to start and turn into the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, transferred to TCU. Guard Mi’Cole Cayton transferred to Big Ten West opponent Minnesota while guard Whitney Brown, a crowd favorite and in-state walk-on from Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, will play at Fort Hays State. Guard Ruby Porter is playing professional basketball in Australia while guard Ashley Scoggin left the team in February. Forward Tatiana Popa, who redshirted her freshman season last year, isn’t on the roster anymore but is pursuing her degree at Nebraska.

Strong core returns

Haiby, who became the first player in Nebraska history to achieve the combined career milestones of 1,000 points (1,381), 500 rebounds (532) and 400 assists (414), had a decision to make following the end of last season: move on from the program after four years or use the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19?

With nearly the whole group back for 2022-23, she let everyone know her choice on March 29:

“I have been a part of our building process here at Nebraska for four years and it has been an amazing experience,” Haiby said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of learning under great coaches and being a leader alongside a great group of players. I still feel like I have more to accomplish as a player and a leader. I am coming back to Nebraska next season because we believe we can take our program another step further together. I can’t wait to go to work again with this team. I love being a Husker because ‘There is No Place Like Nebraska.'”

Haiby’s return is huge for Williams and the team. Not only is the 5-foot-9 guard a former second-team All-Big Ten selection and the player who the team looked to for clutch plays in fourth quarters, she’s a tough player who brings an edge, which is needed in the conference. She averaged 11 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.4 steals last season.

With Haiby in the fold for one more go-around, that means Weidner, who had a fantastic freshman season, has another year to learn from the veteran guard.

Shelley, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in her first season as a Husker after transferring from Oregon, won the team’s Most Valuable Player Award and the Defensive MVP Award at its end-of-season banquet. The native of Moe, Australia, averaged team highs in points (13.1), assists (5), steals (1.8) and blocks (.9).

The 5-9 guard was second in rebounds per game (6.3) and had a team-best six double-doubles and one triple-double. She shot 40% (82-of-202) from 3-point range and her 82 makes is tied for the fourth-best season total in school history. Shelley’s 3-point barrage was a big reason why the Huskers broke the school record for most threes made in a season (279) and per game (8.5).

Haiby, Shelley and Weidner form a really solid backcourt for the Huskers. In her first season of college basketball, Weidner showed she can play.

The Humphrey, Nebraska, native averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and impressed against Minnesota and Michigan during the season. Against the Golden Gophers, Weidner scored her career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting, which included a 3-of-3 performance from behind the arc. Against the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament, she had 16 points.

Nebraska’s frontcourt will feature Markowski and Bourne with the sharpshooter Stewart getting in the mix if healthy.

Markowski won Nebraska’s Offensive MVP Award and proved many naysayers wrong by being one of the best young posts in not only the Big Ten, but the country. The in-state product from Pius X High School in Lincoln averaged 12.8 points and a team-best eight rebounds per game. The 6-3 athlete was able to provide outside scoring, too, as she shot 50% (21-of-42) from 3 and turned heads when she drilled six of her seven 3-point attempts against Iowa on Jan. 16.

Bourne was playing some of her best basketball at the end of the season. The 6-2 forward from Canberra, Australia, averaged 11.1 points and shot 37% (26-of-70) from 3. From Feb. 3 to March 3, Bourne averaged 14.5 points and shot 56% (14-of-25) from behind the arc. There was a stretch from Feb. 6 to March 3 where Bourne made at least one 3 in nine straight games.

The departure of Cravens, however, hurts the Huskers’ frontcourt behind Markowski and Bourne. Stewart, won the team’s Lifter-of-the-Year Award, should figure into the rotation next season. When the 6-3 forward is on the court, defenses need to be aware of her perimeter shooting. Stewart made 34% (22-of-64) from 3, but needs to become more of a threat in the paint as 56% of her shots were 3s.

The new faces

Nebraska is bringing in three new faces to the program, including South Dakota transfer and Nebraska native Maddie Krull, and a couple true freshmen in guard Callin Hake and center Maggie Mendelson.

Krull, who starred at Millard South High School in Omaha, started all 60 games in her two-year career at South Dakota and played all 40 minutes against Ole Miss in the Coyotes’ first-round NCAA Tournament game earlier this year. As a sophomore this past season, she averaged 6.8 points, four rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals.

Though Krull’s scoring and shooting numbers (27% from 3 is two seasons) aren’t going to wow anyone, she’s a tough player who will love suiting up for her home-state team. She has a chance to be a great glue player who fits into the culture that Williams has built.

“She is a winner who loves to compete,” Williams said in a statement. “Every team she has has ever been a part of has been a winning team, and she carried that over into two very successful seasons to start her college career.”

Hake, who’s from Victoria, Minnesota, surpassed the 2,000-point and 500-rebound milestones in her career at Chanhassen High School. As a senior, the 5-8 guard averaged 22.2 points per game and finished her career as Chanhassen’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

“She is going to be a versatile guard that can bring a lot of things to our team on the basketball court,” Williams said of Hake. “I love that she is committed to playing hard on both ends of the court. Not only is Callin the perfect fit for us on the court, but she fits our family. She is not afraid to work and understands how to be a great teammate.”

Mendelson is a unique prospect. Before the 6-foot-5 athlete competes for the basketball team, she’ll be playing volleyball for head coach John Cook. Since 2000, four student-athletes — Greichaly Cepero, Laura Pilakowski, Alicia Ostrander and Allie Havers — have been on the rosters for both volleyball and basketball at Nebraska. Mendelson is next.

Mendelson graduated a year early from Fremont High School in North Ogden, Utah, where she was ranked as the No. 32 basketball recruit in the country.

“As a basketball player, Maggie runs the floor well and has excellent quickness,” Williams said. “She obviously has great timing, which allows her to be a shot-blocker on both the basketball and volleyball courts. She also has the ability to use her size to score with her back to the basketball, and she can stretch the floor by hitting the three-point shot.”

Back to work in June

While some players closer to home will begin their workouts early next month, all of Nebraska’s players will get their workouts rolling sometime around mid-June. The summer months will be crucial for team bonding and getting the new faces acclimated to the program and culture.

There’s no doubt that leadership on the team is going to be strong. But at times during the loss to Gonzaga, it looked like Nebraska was the inexperienced team unsure of itself on the NCAA Tournament stage. After the game, Williams said her team—now a year more experienced—will remember that and use it to power improvement.

“I think we can use that as something that can really benefit our program moving forward,” Williams said in Louisville. “When we think about it, Jaz Shelley being the only player on our team that had any experience of playing in a NCAA Tournament, so even though we have some veteran players and some experienced players, none of them having the experience of playing here in the NCAA Tournament.

“So it’s something that we’re going to definitely learn from and use to propel and fuel our program moving forward.”

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