Defense is important this season for head coach Amy Williams and her young Husker team.
Because while Nebraska seeks a kind of consistency it didn’t have last year, an every-play focus on the defensive end could help insulate this young roster from the kinds of peaks and valleys it experienced throughout the 2018 season.
After allowing teams to run away with games her first season (76.3 points a game), the Huskers saw a 13-point improvement in their defense the following year. That team won 21 games and returned to the NCAA tournament. Last year’s squad, an incredibly young one—and defense doesn’t always translate with so much youth—let the scoring creep back up to the 70 points-per-game threshold.
“I think we're still a work in progress on the defensive end,” Williams said Monday when she met with the media ahead of the 2019 season-opener. “But I like the fact that our team has clearly identified some specific goals that they want to be our identity and I've seen great and drastic improvement in those areas.
“They have decided they want to be the most communicative team on the court, and not just in a particular game but across the country,” Williams said. “They want to talk on defense, they want to know that they can depend on each other, and I think play the best team defense as a result of that and I thought that really showed [in the exhibition].”
Williams had some family in the crowd last Saturday when Nebraska played its lone exhibition game against Rogers State. NU won that game 97-33, out-rebounded the Hillcats 73-27 and held them to 20% shooting from the field for the game and forced misses on 18 of the team’s final 20 3-point tries. After, Williams’ family told her even they noticed the Huskers talking on the court.
Nebraska’s in a unique situation this season, with so much returning production from a team last year that played in 14 two-possession games, but most of that production is young. Whereas last season Williams had an 11-woman roster that featured six underclassmen, this year she has seven of 13.
Inconsistency just sort of comes with the territory with that kind of youth, but Williams feels cautiously optimistic about this year’s group. Nebraska should be able to score. It has complimentary players throughout the backcourt with 3-point snipers at guard (senior Hannah Whitish) and on the wing (junior Taylor Kissinger), an effective slasher (sophomore guard Sam Haiby) and a rather talented isolation scorer (sophomore wing Leigha Brown).
“We've been talking about consistency, and it's very hard to discuss talking about championships until you've got that consistency, and so that's what we've been striving for,” Williams said. “I thought we were able to sustain that in an exhibition game this past weekend but we feel like we still have a lot more to [do in order to] accomplish the consistency we're looking for.”
Nebraska will open its season Wednesday at noon inside Pinnacle Bank Arena against Alabama A&M. The tip time is a little off-the-beaten-path, and Williams said she hasn’t ever opened a season with a game timed quite like this one, but the time comes in conjunction with a Husker Life Skills event.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m., nearly 2,000 elementary and middle-grades students from 27 school districts around Nebraska will hear from Husker student-athletes and coaches, Williams and Alabama A&M head coach and former Husker Margaret Richards about what it's like in college athletics.
“We had postseason meetings with our team last year, and we asked a lot of them their ‘Why,’ and about 90% of our players said they wanted to be a positive impact and role model for the young women,” Williams said. “This is an incredible opportunity for us to do that.”
After, the season begins.
Nebraska expects to have Kissinger available after she sat out the exhibition game. Senior point guard Kristian Hudson is back healthy after last year was lost to injury. Whitish dealt with something minor in training camp as well, but she’s good to go.
Getting off to a quick start, with a road game against Missouri next Saturday prefacing a handful of very winnable games, is important.
“One year ago we lost a few close games early with some young players and I think that it no doubt affected us,” Williams said. “In order to sustain [consistency] or to achieve that, we’ve got to get off to a great start and not have those kinds of peaks and valleys and highs and lows. That starts with being able to really be sharp.
First test comes Wednesday.
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.