*Update* Some very bad news for the Husker women.
Maddie Simon out for tomorrow nights WNIT game with sprained ankle & Jess Shepard questionable #Huskers— Adam Krueger (@AdamKrueger1011) March 16, 2016
Expect Esther Ramacieri, a 5'8" junior guard, to get the start in place of Simon. Rachel Blackburn or Anya Kalenta would likely start for Shepard.
Nebraska: 18-12 (9-9 B1G) vs. Northern Iowa: 22-10 (15-3 MVC)
March 17, 2016 with tipoff at 7:00 p.m.
Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE
Nebraska was among six Big Ten women's hoops teams selected for the WNIT tournament. Minnesota received the conference's automatic bid (the highest finisher in the regular season standings that was not selected for the NCAA tournament). Joining the Huskers and Golden Gophers are Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan. Other area teams selected for the WNIT are Creighton and University of South Dakota.
Five B1G teams were selected for the NCAA tournament including Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, and Indiana.
UNI's Tanya Warren is in her ninth season as the Panther head coach. She was a college teammate of Nebraska Coach Connie Yori at Creighton. Yori and Warren are the only two Creighton women's basketball players to have their jerseys retired.
Nebraska and Northern Iowa have not met since going head-to-head in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament in Minneapolis. The Huskers won that game 83-44. The Huskers will be making their first appearance in the WNIT since 2009. It will be the Big Red's 12th postseason tournament appearance in the last 13 years under Coach Connie Yori, including their fifth trip to the Postseason WNIT.
Scouting the Panthers
Northern Iowa was the regular season champion of the Missouri Valley Conference. They sit at 91 in the RPI rankings which is 4 spots ahead of the Huskers at 95.
The Panthers score an average of 64 points per game (ppg) while holding opponents to 57. It is safe to say that UNI is a strong defensive team and hopes to keep this game as low-scoring as possible. The Huskers score an average of 73 ppg and allow 68 ppg.
An area to watch is three-point shooting as UNI averages 7.4 made each game with Sorenson (forward) and Weekly (guard) being strong in this area. Nebraska, behind Natalie Romeo, averages 5.7 treys per game. With UNI having a post player also being an ace long-range shooter, I expect Nebraska to play a lot of man-to-man defense with Havers on Sorenson and keeping Shepard in the paint to rebound.
Nebraska's perimeter defense has been shaky at times, although replacing two of three starting guards at the end of the season makes it difficult to know if that is still the case. Romeo was probably Nebraska's best on-ball (non-post) defender throughout the season. After season-ending injuries, Clark and Theriot have been replaced by Cincore and Simon in the starting lineup. Cincore is (in my opinion anyway) a defensive upgrade over Clark. The 6'2" Simon may have the length, but she does not (yet) have Theriot's veteran savvy and has not effectively used her size to generate steals or blocks.
Northern Iowa shoots .387 from the field, .312 from three-point range, and .754 from the free throw line. Nebraska shoots .454 from the field, .379 from three, and .698 from the FT line. Jessica Shepard has taken 199 of Nebraska's 517 charity shots. (Rachel Theriot was next with 54 attempts.) Shepard is a miserable .578 from the stripe while the rest of the Husker team shot .774. To be fair, Jess shoots an eye-popping .517 from the field. Considering she usually has a defender or two hanging on her when she shoots, that is impressive. However, FT shooting is clearly an area the freshman needs to improve in the offseason.
"Try to deny the inside pass and hack away at Shepard" seems to be the prevailing defensive strategy against the Huskers and it has proven effective at times. I expect the same from UNI, especially with Natalie Romeo likely running point - which reduces her shooting opportunities.
UNI is a veteran team and is expected to start all juniors and seniors.
Madison Weekly 5'7" Jr. G 17.9 points/game; 3.6 rebounds/game; 2.3 assists/game; 35 steals (season)
Amber Sorensen 6'2" Sr. F 12.8 ppg; 4.2 rpg; 1.0 apg; 33 blocked shots (season)
Jen Keitel 6'3" Sr. F 10.2 ppg; 6.9 rpg; 1.8 apg; 36 blocks (season)
Sharnae Lamar 5'2" Sr. G 5.0 ppg; 4.0 rpg; 5.3 apg; 43 steals (season)
Stephanie Davison 5'10" Sr. G 7.2 ppg; 3.6 rpg; 1.5 apg; 21 steals (season)
Nebraska's expected starters are much younger but will have a significant height advantage in the backcourt.
Natalie Romeo 5'7" So. G 15.8 ppg; 2.7 rpg; 2.9 apg; 43 steals (season)
Maddie Simon 6'2" Fr. G 5.0 ppg; 1.4 rpg; 1.0 apg; 1 steal (season)
Jasmine Cincore 5'10" So. G 4.1 ppg; 1.7 rpg; 1.4 apg; 26 steals (season)
Jessica Shepard 6'4" Fr. F 19.0 ppg; 8.6 rpg; 1.9 apg; 20 blocks (season)
Allie Havers 6'5" Jr. C 8.2 ppg; 6.6 rpg; 1.1 apg; 32 blocks (season)
This assumes Jessica Shepard is healed enough (stress reaction in her foot) to play. If she cannot go, look for either senior Anya Kalenta or freshman Rachel Blackburn to take her place. Blackburn was the starter opposite Shepard for the first half of the season until a tweaked knee and illness kept her out of a few games. Allie Havers stepped into Rachel's starting spot and never let go of the job. Kalenta seemed to get the nod over Blackburn late in the season's post rotation but if Coach Yori is looking to the future, it would seem wise to get Blackburn as much postseason experience as possible.
It is no secret that with Theriot out, the Husker offense runs through Shepard and Romeo. Maddie Simon showed some flashes from three-point land in her starts after replacing Rachel Theriot. If she gets hot from long range it will help Nebraska, especially Romeo. Allie Havers has been playing some of the best basketball of her career and she could also be that much-sought-after third scoring option.
On a team that generally looked tired and hurt (and was) at the Big Ten tournament, Havers played with an intensity that was noticeable. She will need to maintain that energy to take some of the pressure off a hobbled Shepard. With Romeo, Cincore, and Simon all getting comfortable with their new roles, I think the perimeter offense will be the key to this game. All the Husker guards will have a 3-5" advantage over their likely UNI defenders in a man-to-man setting. Shepard is also not 100%. The backcourt will need to score early and often against a stingy Panther defense.
I expect Nebraska to win this game, but they are young and their best player is hurting. Both teams are extremely disappointed to not be in the NCAA tournament. Anything can happen when a young team looking to build for next year meets a team that is trying to send out seniors on a high note.