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Nebraska WBB: NCAA Tourney and Season Recap

A young Cornhusker team may have exited the NCAA tournament in the first round, but exceeded most expectations. Can they build toward even better things next season?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Nebraska Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA Tournament vs Arizona State Sun Devils

It was a valiant effort, but the Huskers fell 73-62 in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Janay Morton led the Huskers with season highs of 16 points and four rebounds off the bench to cap her Nebraska career. Taylor Kissinger, a 6-1 freshman guard added 15 points off the bench, while sophomore starter Hannah Whitish contributed 12 points to put three Huskers in double figures.

After the two teams went to halftime tied at 27, Whitish hit back-to-back threes early in the third quarter to give the Huskers a 36-33 lead with 6:38 left in the period. Kissinger hit a driving layup a little more than a minute later to keep Nebraska up 39-36 with 5:26 left, but the Sun Devils responded with a 14-0 run over the next four minutes to take control of the game.

Nebraska trailed 51-40 at the end of three quarters, and the Sun Devils grew their lead to 16 points at 56-40 by holding the Huskers without a field goal for more than nine minutes dating back to Kissinger’s third quarter layup.

But as they showed all season, the Big Red refused to surrender cutting the ASU lead to 68-59 on Morton’s third three-pointer of the game with 2:03 left. Nebraska then got a defensive stop, but on the ensuing possession Jasmine Cincore was called for an offensive foul on a drive down the middle of the lane. The Huskers could get no closer the rest of the way.

Cincore entered the game as the only Husker with any NCAA Tournament playing experience (one minute as a freshman in 2015), contributed eight points, three rebounds, a block and a steal in her final game at Nebraska.

While it was a disappointing loss, the Huskers exceeded expectations in even making it to The Dance. Hopefully, next season they can get into the W column at the tournament and build on the experience they gained this season.

Season Recap

After a miserable 2016-17 season that saw Nebraska women’s basketball tied for last in the Big Ten, expectations were tempered a bit for 2017-18. The Cornhuskers had shown some flashes of very good play toward the end of the season, but were one of the least experienced teams in the B1G in 2018. They also lost the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in Jessica Shepard to transfer and their other starting post (Allie Havers) to graduation.

Before the season, I was optimistic this team could go .500 in conference play and claw their way back up to ‘average’. Instead, we got a campaign orchestrated by the Big Ten Coach of the Year. Maddie Simon switched from guard to power forward, Hannah Whitish grew into an all-conference point guard, and a freshman, Kate Cain, destroyed the school record in blocked shots.

The Huskers tied for 3rd place in the conference and earned a double-bye for the conference tournament. They went 21-11 overall and 11-5 in the B1G. They were an astonishing 9-2 in true road games, something no one would have guessed from such a young team.

The full stats for the season are here.

Leading Scorers

Hannah Whitish - 12.6 pts/game
Maddie Simon - 10.1 ppg
Taylor Kissinger - 10.0 ppg
Kate Cain - 9.9 ppg

As a team, Nebraska scored an average of 68.8 points per game while holding opponents to 63.6 ppg. Not surprisingly, post players Darrien Washington and Kate Cain led the team in field goal % at .567 and .566 respectively. Of the guards, Nicea Eliely and Taylor Kissinger were both better than 40% shooters at .469 and .408.

As a team, Nebraska was rather abysmal at free throws, shooting .641 (compared to opponents making .727 of their FTs). Emily Wood was 13-14 for .929 on the season. The only other Huskers over 70% were Maddie Simon (.781), Hannah Whitish (.780), Taylor Kissinger, (.718), and Bria Stallworth (.733). Kate Cain shot .429 from the charity stripe. That is one area, I’m sure Coach Williams will be working with her young center for next season.

Leading Rebounders

Kate Cain - 7.0 rpg
Maddie Simon - 5.3 rpg
Taylor Kissinger - 4.1 rpg
Hannah Whitish, Jasmine Cincore, Nicea Eliely - 4.0 rpg

As a team, the Huskers pulled in 404 offensive rebounds and gave up 408 to opponents. They fared better on the defensive glass, pulling in 879 and giving up 797. On average the Big Red was +2.4 in rebounding margin/game.

Playing Time

All 12 Huskers on the roster logged a decent number of minutes, everyone except Rachel Blackburn averaged at least 8 min/game. (Blackburn averaged 6.9 minutes and was greatly limited in availability due to chronic knee pain). Hannah Whitish led the way, averaging 31 minutes on the floor/game.

Whitish, Cincore, and Cain were the only Huskers to play in all 32 games this season. Emily Wood appeared in 31 and Darrien Washington in 30 games.

Blocked Shots

Kate Cain totaled 100 blocks. She was only shut out of that column in one game the entire season (the NCAA tournament game). She ranked 8th in all of NCAA Division I in that category. The Huskers with double-digit blocks for the season were 6’1” guards Nicea Eliely (20) and Taylor Kissinger (13).

Big Ten Nuggets

Hannah Whitish earned second team All Big Ten honors and Kate Cain was named to the all-defense team as well as the freshman team. As mentioned before, Amy Williams was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year. When your coach and point guard are operating at a high level, it tends to make a team better than the sum of its parts and that is true of this year’s Huskers.

Even though Nebraska finished third in the conference standings, they were generally middle-of-the-pack in most statistical areas. They were first in field goal defense %, holding opponents to .371 shooting and 3-point defense % at .299. They were tied for second in the conference in defensive rebounds with 27.5/game. They were third in the conference in 3-point shots, making an average of 7.8 treys/game. They were fourth in blocked shots (5.1 bpg) and scoring defense (63.6 ppg).

The not-so-pretty stats? They were dead last in the conference in free throw % at .641. At one time this season, the Huskers were nearly last in all of NCAA in this category, but they did improve down the stretch. They were 10th in field goal % at .419.

Looking Ahead

Nebraska is losing three seniors, starter Jasmine Cincore and reserve guards Janay Morton and Emily Wood. I my preseason analysis, I must admit that I thought Cincore could get passed on the depth chart by transfers Morton or Bria Stallworth or freshman Taylor Kissinger. However, she proved to be a rock. She never put up flashy stats in any one category, but she filled in all the columns, commonly contributing points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and assists in the same game. When Connie Yori resigned, Cincore received permission to transfer from Nebraska but changed her mind after a meeting with Amy Williams. I think it is safe to say she is glad she did.

Emily Wood started her career as a walk-on but earned a scholarship. The shortest player on the team at 5’5”, she improved her game every season and was a solid contributor as a junior and senior. She was deadly accurate from long range, leading the team in making 42.3% of her 3-point shots. Both Cincore and Wood have been accepted into a program the Big Ten runs for aspiring college basketball coaches.

Janay Morton transferred to Nebraska from Eastern Michigan and had to sit out the 2016-17 season. Morton was hampered by a foot injury but as she got healthier, she contributed starter-quality play to the Huskers. She was especially great in late shot clock situations. She had performed at an all-conference (MAC) level on defense at EMU, but it was on offense, especially from three point land, where she made some of her best plays for the Huskers.

Amy Williams signed a top-20 freshman class of four players that includes two guards and two forwards. The headliner of the class is Ashtyn Verbeek, a 6’2” Iowa native who is ranked the 9th best forward of the 2018 class by ESPN.

The Huskers played some great defense and were the very definition of “team” basketball. To compete with the Ohio States and Marylands of the Big Ten, they are going to need to score more points.

Taylor Kissinger returning to health will give Nebraska a big boost next season. Bria Stallworth was a good scorer her freshman season at UMass (13 ppg) and may get an expanded role next season as Hannah Whitish’s backup now that Emily Wood has graduated. Kate Cain left a lot of points at the freethrow line and will need to make a big jump there. Nicea Eliely earned her starting role as a freshman largely through her defensive play, but bumped up her offensive production as a sophomore (8.2 ppg). If she can get that average into double figures while maintaining her defensive play, she will make it hard for Amy Williams to ever take her off the floor for very long.

Of course, all eyes will be on Hannah Whitish, who scored 29 points in back-to-back games this season but was otherwise somewhat streaky on offense. If she can be a more consistent source of double-digit points, her abilities from long range (in addition to Kissinger’s) will open more up on the inside for Cain and Simon.

A lot can change between now and next season, but this Husker team looks to be in a good place. Amy Williams has her system installed and there was a noticeable cohesion and chemistry with this team. I am excited to see where they go in 2018-19.