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TWIWBB: Huskers Thrive and Survive Two Defensive Slugfests

This week in Huskers women's basketball revealed a tough side to this resurgent team. First they staged a fourth quarter comeback to beat Rutgers and then survived a similar rally by Purdue to win their fourth straight game.

David McGee

The Huskers, who improved to 13-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, notched their fourth consecutive conference victory with two wins this week. The Big Red, a team I had labelled an offensive "death machine" early in non-conference play, survived two low-scoring defensive slugfests.  Against Rutgers, the Huskers trailed most of the game and rallied in a furious 4th quarter to take the lead and game. In West Lafayette, the Huskers looked to be in control for most of the game and had to withstand a Boilermaker spurt in the fourth to hang on for the one point victory.  The Huskers have moved up to #64 in RPI (a considerable improvement from last week's 100+).

The next game is at Michigan on Sunday, January 24 (1 p.m.). The Wolverines sit right next to Nebraska in almost all statistical categories the Big Ten tracks, slightly edging the Huskers in most. Michigan has played very closely to the big dogs of the conference (Maryland and Ohio State) losing by only 7 and 4 respectively. (The Huskers lost to Maryland by over 40). ALL of Michigan's conference games have been single-digit score differentials and this one looks to shape up the same way. The Wolverines are 11-7 overall and 3-4 in the conference. Nebraska leads the series 10-1 and has won four straight against Michigan.

January 20 - Purdue 61 Nebraska 62

Purdue was a surprising, but high-performing team coming into this game as they stood atop the Big Ten rankings (tied with Ohio State and Maryland) and the first team "receiving votes" in the polls (essentially putting them at #26).

The games between Nebraska and Purdue have been barn-burners ever since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Three out of seven meetings have gone to overtime, even double- and triple-overtimes. Unfortunately, the close games seemed to favor Purdue as they held a 5-2 advantage over Nebraska. Game #8 stayed right with the formula as the first three quarters looked like Nebraska would finally get a relatively stress-free win only to watch their lead evaporate as the Boilermakers staged a furious comeback and the Big Red had to hang on for dear life.

The first half was marked by turnovers for Nebraska in a low-scoring affair. Somehow, the Boilermakers got the game they wanted (slow) but the Huskers managed to play the Purdue game better than them. Turnovers absolutely plagued the Huskers as they just could not hold onto the ball and posted 14 turnovers (the Huskers were averaging 14 TO's per GAME prior)  to Purdue's eight. Fortunately, their defense kept Purdue from taking advantage of those steals as NU outscored Purdue 9-8 off turnovers in the half.

The Huskers also outrebounded Purdue, 19-15 in the first half. The Boilermakers hit just 29 percent (9-31) of their first-half shots, including 0-for-5 from three-point range.

2nd half

Both Romeo and Theriot picked up their third fouls quicky in the 3rd quarter. Coach Yori kept Theriot on the floor, which burned the Huskers as Rachel had to be conservative in transition defense and not contest layups when the Huskers continued to turn it over (and over and over).

Romeo being on the sideline (for only 3 minutes) also meant that the Huskers needed to lean on the inside game for points. If Kyndal Clark can get going (it seems less and less likely the more time that goes on) as a scoring threat, it will only help this team maintain an unpredictable scoring attack, especially if Natalie ever has to sit for an extended period.

Allie Havers hit a really nice jumper to beat the buzzer and give Nebraska a 12 point lead at the end of the 3rd.  Rachel Blackburn is getting back into form. In her early starts, she was tremendous at defense, rebounding and drawing charges. After she returned from illness/tweaked knee, she seemed a half step slow and started to commit fouls instead of drawing them. This week, we again started to see the positioning and pressure that made her a top contributor from Day One. In this game, she registered 5 critical points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 15 minutes on the court.

In the fourth quarter, turnovers came back to really bite the Huskers as Purdue staged a furious rally. The Huskers got back to forcing the ball inside and Purdue kept up some really tough pressure on the Husker posts. The double and triple teams really frustrated Shepard and she got whistled twice for fouling defenders by trying to clear them out. She also ended up leading the team in turnovers with 9 of the Huskers' 27 TO's.

It felt like Purdue was playing defense with six on the floor as they were faceguarding Romeo to keep her from even touching the ball, putting heavy pressure on Theriot (even on handoffs) and bringing the help when the ball went inside to Shepard.

Purdue scored seven straight points to open the fourth to cut NU's edge to 48-43 with 8:41 left. Purdue got the margin to two at 50-48 with a three-pointer and layup with 7:05 left. NU's freshman posts Shepard and Blackburn combined for eight straight points in a 2:30 stretch to push the margin back to eight points at 58-50 with 4:24 play, and the Huskers had enough to hold on by one point (62-61) for their second ever win at Purdue and their second road win of the season.

The Huskers handed conference leading Purdue its second straight loss. The Boilermakers slipped to 14-4 overall and 5-2 in the conference.

Jessica Shepard led the Huskers with 22 points. She scored 10 of Nebraska's 14 points in the fourth quarter, including an 8-for-9 effort at the free throw line. Shepard had one of Nebraska's two field goals in the final quarter Natalie Romeo added 14 points and three rebounds, while hitting 5-of-9 shots, including 2-of-5 threes. Romeo also hit a pair of free throws with 2:21 left after Purdue had trimmed the lead to 58-57 with 2:47 remaining. Rachel Theriot pitched in a strong effort with eight points and a game-high 12 assists. The Husker point guard also looks much more comfortable than she has in a few past games, hopefully indicating her foot injury is healing.

Allie Havers added eight points, four rebounds, a block and a steal. Havers also got a deflection to disrupt Purdue's final possession and save the win for the Huskers. Kyndal Clark added five points and five rebounds.

January 16 - Rutgers 54  Nebraska 65

Esther Ramacieri drew her second straight start as Rachel Theriot was benched for the same "internal matter" that carried over from the previous game. In this one however, the benching did not last until the 3rd quarter and the Husker point guard played 34 of the 40 minutes.

First half

Rutgers raced out to a 6-0 lead in the first 3 minutes. The Huskers scored their first basket on a Shepard drive almost halfway through the first quarter. It should have been a foul and free throw for Jess, but no call was made. The Huskers continued the cold offensive streak as the lead went out to 10-2 at the first media timeout. Rebounds were also 10-2 in favor of Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights had missed eight shots and pulled down six offensive rebounds from those.

Theriot entered the game and immediately racked up an assist to Shepard. The freshman post scored the first six Husker points.

The second quarter was closer as the Huskers kept it within 4 points for the most part. The game was a very physical one with a lot of contact without foul calls (consistently called that way for both teams). Allie Havers had some great defensive play in this quarter even ripping the ball right out of opponents' hands.

A Romeo three-pointer briefly tied up the game at 20-20 right after the media timeout but after several empty possessions for both teams Rutgers started hitting their shots and was leading 24-20 with a little over a minute left in the half. After Rutgers somehow left Jess Shepard all alone under the basket, Nebraska pulled the halftime score within two (24-22 in favor of the Scarlet Knights).

The rebounding deficit continued to grow and reached 26-14 by the end of the second quarter, including 11-1 in Rutgers favor on the offensive glass.  The Huskers were also a miserable 2 for 6 from the free throw line.

Second half

The physical play continued as the game down low involved a lot of shoving and body contact without foul calls. The contact was allowed to go both ways but the Pinnacle Bank crowd was getting restless especially with the large amount of contact being allowed on Shepard.

Points were at a premium for both teams. Theriot made six free throws to score the bulk of Nebraska's early points with Shepard free throws important late in the period. The third quarter consisted largely of Rutgers getting a small lead with Nebraska coming back to tie it but never getting over the top. The 3rd quarter ended 43-41 with Rutgers leading.

At the beginning of the fourth, radio announcer Matt Coatney stated "It's time to pull up your big girl pants" and did the Huskers ever do that. They tied the game up 43-43 on a Shepard basket almost immediately. Both teams traded missed baskets for a few possessions and the physical play continued that included a rare double-foul call on Husker guard Cincore and Rutgers' Copper. Natalie Romeo scored 13 of her 19 points in the quarter including a 3-pointer that gave the Huskers their first lead (49-46) of the game with 6:25 left. They never looked back from; surviving some missed layups and a growing rebound deficit thanks to cold shooting by the Knights. Rachel Blackburn came up huge in the fourth quarter, bringing some attitude and much-needed rebounding to the floor.

The play of the game may have been a Theriot floater against Rutgers 6'4" star Rachel Hollivay at the end of the shot clock. Theriot's shot was made off-balance and she had to twist her body around. It somehow went in and gave Nebraska points in a situation where they were largely content to run off 30 seconds of clock. That basket gave the Huskers a seven point lead with 1:32 left in the game.

The fourth quarter completely belonged to Nebraska as they outscored Rutgers 24-11. For the game, Nebraska finished with a season-low five turnovers, while forcing nine on the Scarlet Knights.

Shepard put up a game-high 22 points while adding eight rebounds. Rutgers, which entered the game at No. 16 in the RPI, slipped to 12-6 overall and 3-3 in the conference, in game that was not attended by Head Coach C. Vivian Stringer, as she remained with her family to be with her ailing mother. Assistant Coach Timothy Eatman was RU's acting head coach for the game.