Nebraska crafted a non-conference schedule worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. To hold up their end of the bargain, the Huskers had to win some of those tough games, but came up just short in all of three of the tight games (Drake, Washington State, Arkansas) they played. The nine-point loss to Creighton is also going to sting badly (for reference, my Jackrabbits beat Creighton 74-48 and Amy Williams’ former team, the South Dakota Coyotes beat them 77-65).
Am I saying the Huskers won’t make the NCAA Tourney? No. But if the Huskers make a move during conference play and are watching their TVs anxiously on selection day, a few of these early games will be haunting them.
I am saying that I’m adjusting my expectations for this season after thinking the Huskers had a good shot to make some real noise in the Big Ten. They finished third in the conference last season, returned their top five scorers and brought in a top 20 recruiting class. I wouldn’t have picked them to win, or even finish second (without some major happenings at Maryland or Iowa) but I thought they had a chance to finish about in the same spot. I’m not so sure now.
The Big Ten has six teams currently in the polls or receiving votes (Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan State are ranked with Indiana and Michigan receiving votes.) The B1G is a solid, but not elite, women’s basketball conference. They have a lot of good teams - not a lot of great ones. My point? This conference schedule will be a tough one and wins will be hard fought.
What is going to be fun to watch is how Amy Williams puts her chess pieces on the board and guides the growth of her precocious newcomers. To put it bluntly, these freshman have upset the apple cart a bit. Roles that seemed well-defined before the season started are... a bit unclear right now. To me, this looks like a talented bunch of players who are still figuring out the give-and-take that goes with consistently operating as a team. I have no doubt Coach Williams can get them there, it is just a matter of “when”. The sooner it all gels, the better chance Nebraska has at some postseason play.
Nebraska erased a nine-point deficit with 4:32 remaining to take an 80-79 lead with 1:04 left in the game, but Arkansas made enough plays in the closing minute to hold on for 84-80 win.
Trailing 77-68 with 4:32 left, Nebraska erupted on a 12-2 surge with seven points from freshman Sam Haiby during a 1:43 span. Her final point of her team-high 16 came on the first of two free throws to put the Big Red up 80-79 win 1:04 left.
Twenty seconds later, Chelsea Dungee scored to put Arkansas back up 81-80. She added a free throw with 25 seconds left to extend the Arkansas margin to 82-80. Trailing by two, Nebraska got a good look at the rim from Haiby, but the challenged shot fell off the rim. The Huskers fouled and Kiara Williams, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds made both free throws to close the scoring.
Nebraska finished non-conference play with a 5-6 record, while Arkansas improved to 8-3 including 5-1 at home with its only loss coming 85-83 to a ranked Arizona State team.
In addition to the 16 points from Haiby, Nebraska’s other freshman came up big. The Huskers got 14 points and five rebounds from freshman Ashtyn Veerbeek off the bench. Leigha Brown added nine points, while Kayla Mershon pitched in six points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals while being involved in several big plays to swing momentum. Overall, Nebraska’s bench outscored the Arkansas bench 45-11.
Sophomore center Kate Cain played with foul trouble that limited her to just four points, five rebounds and three blocks before fouling out in the fourth quarter after being the game just 17 minutes. Maddie Simon managed four points and six boards, while Nicea Eliely contributed four points and three boards.
Taylor Kissinger led the Husker starters with 12 points, while Hannah Whitish pitched in 11 including five points in the final 5:16. Seeing the junior point guard, and preseason All-Big Ten selection make some plays when her team needed her is big. She suffered a “tweaked” knee earlier this season that has limited her somewhat. Along with the growth of the freshman players, getting Whitish back to form will pay dividends for the Huskers throughout conference play.
As a team, Nebraska hit 45.9 percent (28-61) of its shots from the field, including 9-of-21 three-pointers (.429), but the Big Red went just 2-for-8 from long range in the second half. The Huskers also hit 15-of-23 free throws in the game (.652), while Arkansas knocked down 17-of-23 (.739).
Nebraska won the battle of the boards, 41-37. The Huskers have shown themselves to be a very good rebounding team this season. Starter Kate Cain is a leader there and the guards are all fairly involved in cleaning the glass, but it has been (surprise) a freshman that has put Nebraska over the top. Iowa native, 6’3” forward Ashtyn Verbeek is turning into a reliable rebounder who can also score from anywhere on the floor.
Arkansas won the turnover battle 15-10 and scored 25 points off Nebraska’s turnovers, while the Huskers managed just 10 of the Razorbacks’ 10 miscues. Turnovers have been a bugaboo for this Husker team. With four freshman and two sophomores playing extensive minutes, it is not surprising, but still something Nebraska will have to clean up.
Nebraska will enjoy its longest break from competition during the season over the next nine days before returning to Pinnacle Bank Arena to open Big Ten Conference play against Michigan on Friday, Dec. 28. Tip-off between the Huskers and Wolverines is set for 6 p.m. (CT).