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TWIWBB: Huskers Close Non-Conference Play at 9-2

This week in Husker women's basketball: Kyndal Clark heats up as non-conference play ends. Shepard wins yet another award, and Blackburn misses a week with illness.

Natalie Romeo
Natalie Romeo
David McGee

The Huskers closed non-conference play with a 9-2 record and are #35 in the AP poll (in the "receiving votes" group). Nebraska sits at a dismal #103 in RPI which could explain the lack of love in the polls. I expect the RPI to drastically improve as the Huskers enter their conference slate, assuming they take care of business and win at a high enough clip.

The Huskers will open conference play on New Year’s Eve at home against Iowa. It will be a 1:00 p.m. (central) tipoff. Iowa (9-2) was ranked early in the season, but has tumbled down the list and currently sits just a few spots ahead of Nebraska in the "receiving votes" area. The game can be heard on or viewed on BTNplus.

Shepard set a Nebraska freshman scoring record tallying 35 points and bettering Deb Powell's 34 against Notre Dame in 1982. For her efforts against Northern Arizona, Jess was named B1G player and freshman of the week. She has captured four of six freshman B1G honors so far this season. This is her first (of many, I am sure) player of the week honors.

December 21 - Arkansas State 71 Nebraska 79

The Huskers welcomed a very experienced and talented Arkansas State squad to the Vault for the final non-conference game of the season. ASU was smaller than the Huskers but athletic and quick. The Huskers were without Rachel Blackburn (illness) again, giving Allie Havers her second career start. The Huskers controlled the tip but the Red Wolves struck first on a field goal by Gamble.

Jessica Shepard committed an offensive foul and ASU converted the resulting possession into a trey and took a 5-0 lead. Kyndal Clark (assisted by Theriot) hit the first Husker shot, a three-pointer. The Huskers’ early shooting woes carried over from the past few games as they missed everything from layups to three-pointers. ASU’s speed appeared to cause the Huskers to rush their shots with predictable results.

Natalie Romeo put an end to the scoring drought with a three for the Huskers to take their first lead 6-5 midway through the first quarter. The transition game clicked and the Huskers were up 10-7 at the first media timeout and extended it to 14-10 at the end of a low-scoring first quarter.

Romeo opened the 2nd quarter with a three-pointer to put the Huskers up 17-10. Unfortunately, missed layups, missed free throws, and poor passes (picked off for turnovers) became the standard procedure again for the Big Red. The Red Wolves tied the game at 18 with 7 minutes left in the 2nd. Theriot took control and scored a couple of quick baskets to get the lead back for Nebraska. Combined with a Kalenta free throw, the Huskers took a 25-20 lead into the media timeout.

Both teams traded a few points and turnovers to maintain the margin 32-27 at the half.

As the second half opened, the shooting woes continued as Havers missed a layup on Nebraska’s first possession. Jess Shepard decided she had enough of the pushing and holding and put up some contested points and dished out a couple of assists to her guards. Theriot went cold and the Wolves were not going away quietly. They tied the game at 43 and pulled ahead 45-43 before Romeo attacked the rim and evened the game back up at 45 at the media timeout.

The radio announcers were calling out ASU for flopping and Yori was in the officials’ ear to watch the contact, especially on Shepard. There does seem to be a trend of opposing players getting away with extra contact on Shepard, but as a dominant post player, she better get used to that disadvantage. Big, athletic players like her do not seem to get the benefit of the doubt while on offense, and seem to get noticed more when making contact on defense.

A free throw gave the Red Wolves a one-point lead shortly out of the break and Theriot was noticeably playing in some pain. Romeo continued to attack the rim and got the lead back despite an ASU player trying to shove her out of bounds. Havers picked up her third foul, was replaced by Kalenta and ASU regained a one point lead on the free throws (48-47) with less than two minutes left in the 3rd quarter.

Kyndal Clark was also aggressively attacking the heart of the ASU defense. This was a new aspect of her Husker game but very familiar to those that watched her at Drake. She got the lead back (49-48) on two free throws, but then Theriot got burned on a drive and gave it back up (49-48). Clark drove to the paint, drew the foul and made her free throws to put the Huskers back up 51-50.

ASU again answered at the other end to go up 52-51.

The Huskers were largely playing a six-person rotation (starting five + Kalenta) with Blackburn and Simon unavailable. The Huskers were getting tired despite the Red Wolves not going very far into their bench either.

Romeo opened the fourth quarter by driving (again) and quickly regained the Husker lead (53-52). Kyndal Clark defensively tied up the ball to earn a possession for Nebraska. Shepard and Theriot drew three fouls on ASU less than two minutes into the quarter. Theriot was sent to the line and made one free throw to extend the lead to 54-52. ASU took it back with a three-pointer on the other end (55-54).

Shepard was not rebounding well at this point and looked tired as she was already over 30 minutes. She did draw a foul (the 4th on Lawson) with 8 minutes to go to put Nebraska on the brink of bonus. Another missed layup gave ASU a possession and they capitalized to go up by three. A quick turnover by the Huskers gave the Red Wolves the ball back with the lead.

The Huskers were tired and beat up and the crowd noticed and tried to rally their team. Allie Havers scored her first points of the game to pull within one but ASU answered and regained a three point lead (59-56). Romeo was fouled to put Nebraska into bonus with slightly over six minutes left. She made both to pull within one.

The teams traded baskets and it looked like it would be a dogfight through the last few minutes. The Red Wolves were starting five seniors, three of them were fifth-year seniors, and have won their conference (SunBelt). Their experience was showing even as the minutes piled up and they had to be tired.

Shepard was fouled as ASU’s Gill picked up her fourth. Free throws essentially amount to chances for points without expending energy - which was big for the Huskers at this point. Clark received attention from the trainers to clean up blood. Shepard made both free throws to regain the lead 63-61.

Great defensive plays by several Huskers forced a turnover at the other end. Romeo sent a pass into Havers who finished and pulled the Huskers up by three 64-61. Havers, Romeo and Clark seemed to have the most energy at this point as Shepard was playing way more minutes than she is used to and Theriot was either hurt, sick (or both) and simply not herself as she was getting burned on defense and shorting her shots. She appeared to be favoring a foot/ankle slightly (the post game notes indicated it was a foot injury).

Clark and Romeo’s clutch shooting and driving to attack the middle began to turn the tide and the Huskers went up 69-65. The two shortest Huskers were doing damage in the paint despite the physicality of the Red Wolves.

ASU’s Gill fouled out with a bad decision, bumping Theriot 38 feet away from the basket and putting a 90+% free throw shooter to the line. Rachel hit both to raise her total to 11 points and put the Huskers up 71-65. Clark then pulled down a rebound to draw an over-the-back which fouled out another ASU starter (Gill). Clark made both to put the Huskers up by 8 and the Red Wolves were largely out of gas and options.

Shepard found some defensive energy on rebounds, and Clark/Romeo continued to terrorize ASU from everywhere on the floor. On one possession, crisp Husker passing stymied ASU attempts to foul and Kyndal Clark buried an ill-advised three-pointer to essentially put the game away (77-69 with less than a minute to go) and give her a Nebraska career-high 22 points.

A miss on the Red Wolves part led to a Theriot rebound. ASU had no choice but to foul her and she made both to put Nebraska up by 10. The Red Wolves scored a quick layup, uncontested by the Huskers to avoid fouling, and the clock ran out. Final score 79-71.

Kyndal Clark scored 22, Natalie Romeo 20, and Jessica Shepard 19. Shepard led in rebounding with 13. After an iffy start, the free throws improved greatly as the Huskers shot 20 of 26 (77%) on the night.

This game showcased the Kyndal Clark who was named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year in 2014 (she lost most of the 2014-15 season to a knee injury). She had not attacked the rim much in her time with Nebraska, but the relentless effort by her and Romeo in that department, coupled with their three-point abilities, made them a difficult duo to defend.

When defenses try to shut down Shepard by pushing and holding (and they most definitely will in Big Ten play) it will be imperative that Clark/Romeo continue to attack the middle to keep defenses from teeing off on Jessica. If she gets a sliver of daylight to use her athleticism, she will not only make jaw-dropping plays, but will also get more latitude in drawing fouls (versus the no-calls often made when she is powering up against tight double teams).

Combine those shooting guards with Theriot’s veteran floor vision at point and her ability to play whatever role each individual game demands of her and you have some great ingredients. Scorer, defender, name it, Theriot is the chameleon that allows this young team to ride the hot hand. These Huskers can play very complimentary basketball. In other words, unlike #Nebrasketball, the women can weather a bad day by one or more of their offensive threats and still put points on the board.

This was the largest losing point margin for the 6-3 Red Wolves.

December 19 – Northern Arizona 67 Nebraska 90

The Huskers were without freshman forward Rachel Blackburn (illness) so 6’5" junior center Allie Havers got her first Husker career start. NA’s star player (Alyssa Rader), a 6’2" freshman, picked up two quick fouls (first 2 minutes of the game) and had to take a seat on the bench.

The Huskers were sloppy early on and turnovers combined with missed shots allowed the Lumberjacks to take a 12-5 lead. The Huskers were not doing a good job closing out on the shooter leaving many uncontested shots for Northern Arizona. NA’s aggressive post play was working against them as their other post (Cotton) picked up her second foul with 3 ½ minutes left in the first quarter.

Nebraska could not capitalize as the Lumberjacks extended their lead to as much as 11. Five of the six NA team fouls at this point were against Jess Shepard (who is not a great free throw shooter).

Havers picked up her second foul near the end of the second quarter and was replaced by Kalenta. With Blackburn out and Havers in foul trouble, Darrien Washington was staying loose and close by Coach Yori (she has not played since the second game).

All of Nebraska’s first 20 points were by the posts (Havers 2, Shepard 16, Kalenta 2) but the Lumberjacks maintained a 7-10 point lead throughout the second quarter. The Huskers were not getting shots to fall, turning the ball over, and not picking up the cutter when they were playing defense.

Shepard was getting hammered on both ends of the floor and then Havers picked up her 3rd foul and had to sit the rest of the half. Natalie Romeo took an elbow to the forehead on a "head-hunter" screen and had to leave the floor. Play was delayed for the extensive blood cleanup. The Huskers were still down by 10.

After review, it was ruled a Flagrant 1 (on Coggins) and Clark shot the free throws as Romeo was in the locker room receiving medical attention. Kyndal made the first one. She missed the second but Kalenta drew a quick foul on the rebound. Anya made of one her two charity shots to pull within 8. The Huskers’ terrible free throw shooting was really costing them at this point. In the span of 17 seconds, Nebraska shot 6 free throws, making only 3. Nebraska was down 33-26 with 5 minutes left in the second quarter.

Even Theriot, a career 90+% shooter finished the game 3 of 6 from the line. Cincore forced a turnover, despite taking an elbow, but Shepard returned the favor on the other end. Theriot nailed two quick buckets to get the Huskers within three. Theriot was fouled on the second one and Yori nearly drew a technical (according to the radio guys) chewing out the refs for not calling it. Theriot was visibly upset too and lobbied a different official to try and get the call.

The Lumberjacks extended the lead back to 10 thanks to multiple Husker turnovers. Telegraphing passes was a problem as Northern Arizona was watching for the throws inside and picking them off fairly often. Washington entered the game with 90 seconds to go in the half to relieve Shepard.

Northern Arizona shot over 50% from the field including 4 of 7 from 3 point range. They are not known as a top shooting team, so that is more of an indictment on Nebraska’s defense in the first half than anything else. Kyndal Clark looked really sluggish, repeatedly getting beat off the ball on defense, and there was speculation by the announcers that she might be suffering from the same illness (just less serious) than Rachel Blackburn.

It was also announced that Natalie Romeo’s cut above her eye was successfully glued, and that she would be back after the half. Kalenta got the second half start over Havers (with 3 fouls). The Lumberjacks’ pushing down low, which had largely gone uncalled after the first two minutes was spotted and resulted in two quick defensive fouls on NA.

The Huskers pulled ahead by one (and then three) with 2 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. The NA coach had already used all of her timeouts for the quarter. The lead quickly went up to seven and the Lumberjacks had no way to stop the Husker momentum. The Huskers held on to that lead and at the end of the 3rd quarter were up by seven. Larry the Cable Guy offered his commentary…

Natalie Romeo was playing angry basketball in the second half and her energy seemed to be the spark that got the rest of the team going. Kyndal Clark also found another gear, especially on defense. I could write a few paragraphs about the fourth quarter, but I will spare you excess words. The Huskers put the hammer down and won by 23.

Jess Shepard set a new freshman scoring record at 35 points, surpassing Deb Powell’s 34 point performance against Notre Dame in 1982. Rachel Theriot added 23. No other Huskers were in double digits. Anya Kalenta led the rebounding department with 14 and Natalie Romeo dished out 10 assists (a career high). After starting the game in abysmal fashion from the free throw line, the Huskers sank all 11 attempts in the final four minutes.

One of the Northern Arizona guards , 5’7" freshman Passionate Amukamara has some Husker ties as she is the youngest sister of former Husker/current Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara. Passionate logged three minutes but no stats.