Illinois was a team that had lost 29 straight Big Ten games, but broke that streak with a recent win against a ranked Minnesota team. Illinois has better personnel than that losing streak indicates, and this Husker team hasn’t played at a level yet that assures them a win against anyone.
Fortunately, the Huskers put enough pieces together to come away from Champaign with the 77-67 win. Nebraska improved to 3-3 in the Big Ten and 7-9 overall, while Illinois slipped to 1-5 in the conference and 9-8 overall.
I have been wondering when one of Nebraska’s freshman would draw a start. It has become apparent this season that the four newcomers are putting the pressure on their older teammates. Nebraska’s two leading scorers are freshman, Leigha Brown and Sam Haiby. Ashtyn Verbeek has pulled down 105 rebounds, second only to sophomore Kate Cain’s 116 this season. Last night, Amy Williams replaced senior Maddie Simon with Kayla Mershon into the starting lineup.
Mershon has the least gaudy statistics of the four freshman. I haven’t been able to watch this team as much as I’d like (mostly listening to games) but if I had to guess, it is her defensive effort and versatility (she seems comfortable defending in space or in the paint) that earned her the nod.
Mershon may have gotten the start, but it was another freshman who stole the show. Ashtyn Veerbeek erupted for a career-high 19 points to lead four Huskers in double figures. Veerbeek, whose previous career high was 14 points, matched her career best through three quarters and pumped in five straight points including Nebraska’s biggest shot of the night with a three-pointer with 1:39 left to push Nebraska’s lead to 69-59. The 6-2 forward from Sioux Center, Iowa, added eight rebounds and a block to propel the Huskers to their second Big Ten road win of the year.
Hannah Whitish, who finished with 12 points and seven assists without a turnover, helped the Huskers seal the win with four free throws in the final 1:30, while Leigha Brown and Taylor Kissinger each pitched in 10 points. Kate Cain added strong contributions with eight points and seven rebounds, while Sam Haiby added seven points, two assists and three steals off the bench.
Kayla Mershon, a freshman from Chanhassen, Minn., helped the Huskers get a win in her first career start by knocking down a first-half three and sealing the victory with Nebraska’s final two points of the night at the line.
The Huskers, who led by as many as 14 points in both the first and fourth quarters, saw the Illini cut the margin to seven points with 2:35 left in the game, before Veerbeek buried a three to change the complexion of the game in the final two minutes.
It was Veerbeek’s lone three of the contest and Nebraska’s seventh of the game. The Huskers hit 31.8 percent of their threes (7-22), while hitting 47.2 percent (25-53) of their shots overall, while knocking down 20-of-28 (.714) at the free thrown line. NU forced 17 turnovers by Illinois and turned those into 15 points. Nebraska committed just 12 turnovers in the contest.
For the game, Illinois hit 39.1 percent (25-64) of its shots, including 29.2 percent (7-24) from three-point range. The Illini knocked down just 10-of-17 free throws, but out-rebounded the Huskers 40-32 on the night. However, Illinois was only able to convert 15 offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points, while the Huskers got nine points of their five offensive boards on the night.
Huskers return to Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln on Sunday to square off with No. 23 Minnesota. Tip-off between the Big Red and Golden Gophers is set for 5 p.m.