The Husker women have a world of potential but haven’t quite put everything together for most of this season. Nebraska hasn’t had trouble scoring points, but they’ve given ground on defense more than expected (to put it kindly). They rebound very well. They turn the ball over too much. They haven’t been able to turn opponent turnovers into points regularly.
People like me who follow this team kept waiting and wondering when the switch would flip. This is a young and talented team with the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year at the helm. They looked sooooo close at times. It seemed like only a matter of time before we saw the full potential of this group start to come together.
One quarter a season does not make, but the fourth quarter against Michigan was a 33-13 display of domination against a Wolverine team that was receiving votes in the polls as the Huskers notched a 70-56 victory on their home court.
The final margin of victory was 14 (it should have been 11 but a 3 pointer by Sam Haiby with a few seconds left wasn’t even defended and probably wasn’t supposed to be shot). The Huskers scored 23 points off of Michigan turnovers while Michigan only managed 9 points off of Nebraska miscues. For most of the season that differential has explained a large chunk of Nebraska’s deficit at the end of a game. Yesterday, it explained much of an upset win.
The Huskers raced out to an early lead in the first quarter but Michigan came back to end the period with a 13-10 lead. The second quarter started as a disaster for Nebraska as Michigan built their lead to 10 points. The Huskers steadied the ship and went into the half with a four point deficit. The Wolverines outscored Nebraska in each of the first three quarters, gradually building their lead to six points entering the fourth quarter.
And what a fourth it was. Nicea Eliely scored all 14 of her team-leading points in that period as she single-handedly outscored the Wolverines (who notched 13 points in the final quarter.) Sam Haiby scored 10 of her 12 points in the fourth as well.
The Husker defense was stifling for most of the game, led by Eliely’s stellar (as usual) play. I remember remarking in the game thread that she got lost a couple times and was indecisive whether to stay with her player or provide help defense but that was mostly noticeable because it was unusual. Her teammates stepped up and played defense in a way that allowed Eliely to guard one player at a time rather than all of them. At one point in the game, she simply took the ball away from the Michigan guard. At another, Eliely reached up an grabbed a pass from a Wolverine just as it left her hands and then was fouled by that same Michigan player as she brought the ball down.
Another example of how never giving up on a play reaps rewards came from Hannah Whitish. Kate Cain had three fouls. A Wolverine managed to get past Whitish and was driving the lane. As Cain rotated over to be the last line of defense I thought, “Here comes her fourth foul.” However, Whitish made a nifty move to take the ball away. When the guards are playing good perimeter defense and forcing turnovers, it makes a big difference in Cain’s foul count.
Cain finished the game with three fouls, while fellow 6’5” center, Michigan’s Hallie Thome racked up her fourth foul early in the fourth quarter and had to sit for a while. Even when she returned, it wasn’t enough to contain Eliely, Haiby and the Huskers.
“That was really rewarding as a coach to see all the things we have been preaching to our players - like staying locked in on defense, putting great ball pressure on the dribbler and closing out possessions with defensive rebounds - come together in the fourth quarter,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “We played good defense for four quarters today, but especially in the fourth.”
The Huskers, who held Michigan 20 points below its season scoring average entering the contest, limited the Wolverines to just 4-of-12 shooting in the fourth quarter.
In addition to double-digit performances from Eliely (14) and Haiby (12), the Huskers got 11 big points and a career-high five rebounds from freshman Leigha Brown.
Senior Maddie Simon added 10 points to give the Huskers four players in double figures, while sophomore Taylor Kissinger pitched in eight points. Fellow sophomore Kate Cain contributed five points, six rebounds, four blocked shots, two assists and a steal to help anchor the Husker defense. Junior guard Hannah Whitish also contributed five points and three assists.
For the game, Nebraska hit just 36.7 percent (22-60) of its shots from the field, including 13-of-45 through the first three quarters. The Huskers did connect on 9-of-24 threes (.375) outscoring the Wolverines by 21 points from beyond the arc. The Big Red also connected on 17-of-21 free throws (.800) and won the turnover battle, 23-15.
Nebraska held Michigan to 37.7 percent (20-53) shooting, including a dismal 2-of-10 from three-point range. Michigan hit just 14-of-22 free throws (.636) but did win the battle of the boards 39-38 for the game. Nebraska entered the fourth quarter minus-10 on the glass to a Michigan team that ranked among national leaders with nearly a plus-14 average rebound margin entering the contest.
Every Husker that was available (9) played at least 15 minutes. Junior forward Grace Mitchell did not suit up and is considered day-to-day with a foot injury. Every Michigan player save Hallie Thome was in the minus for the +/- column on the box score. Every Husker save senior Maddie Simon was on the plus side, although my eyes tell me Simon had one of her better outings this season (four turnovers and a couple of missed layups are likely a reason behind the - rating).
Let’s hope the defensive improvement continues. It was fun to watch this team put the clamps on a very good Wolverine squad. They will have to continue to do that to have a chance to beat some of the other top teams in the B1G.
Nebraska opens Big Ten road play at Ohio State on New Year’s Eve. Tip-off between the Big Red and the defending Big Ten champion Buckeyes is set for a noon tip with live television coverage by BTN.