They say it is hard to beat a team three times in a single season. That adage proved true as the #6 Huskers met #12 seed Purdue in the second round of the Big Ten conference tournament. After two regular season victories against the Boilermakers, the Huskers fell 75-71 in a game they needed to win to keep any hope of an WNIT at-large bid alive. With a sub-.500 record, the Huskers have packed up and headed into the offseason. Nebraska ended 14-16 overall and tied for sixth in the 14-team Big Ten Conference with a 9-9 record.
After a 2017-18 season that saw Nebraska finish #3 in the conference and with a first-round NCAA tournament loss, it seemed like the Huskers had a lot of momentum going into this season. They returned their top five scorers and brought in a Top-20 ranked freshman class. Unfortunately, a tough non-conference schedule and the growing pains that go with having six of eleven players being underclassmen made for a slow start. By the midway point of the season, two more upperclassmen were either out or severely limited due to injury leaving six of nine who played significant minutes as freshman or sophomores.
The Huskers went 5-6 in non-conference play with losses to ranked Miami and Louisville and to a Drake team that is currently ranked. The Huskers have also yet to beat Creighton in Amy Williams’ tenure. The Huskers were 8-6 at home, 5-9 on the road and 1-1 on neutral courts. In conference play, the Huskers fell to ranked teams Maryland (twice), Iowa (twice) and Rutgers while beating ranked Minnesota and Michigan State.
Team Season Statistics
Through the season, the Huskers scored an average of 72.4 ppg while allowing 70.1 ppg. In conference play they scored 69.1 and allowed 69.1. The defense got noticeably better as the year progressed while the offense was somewhat up and down. For the season, the Huskers outrebounded opponents 37.9 rpg to 37.8 rpg (a +.1 margin) but were outrebounded by a significant margin in conference games 34.6 to 37.7 rpg (a -3.1 margin). I’m not sure how the defense improved while giving ground on the boards, but it is what it is.
Scoring Leaders. After a rough start to the season (relative to her breakout sophomore year), junior point guard Hannah Whitish rebounded (pun intended) to lead all Husker scorers at 10.1 ppg. Freshman guards Sam Haiby and Leigha Brown scored 10.0 and 9.6 ppg respectively. Sophomore Taylor Kissinger averaged 8.9, junior Nicea Eliely 7.9, sophomore Kate Cain 7.5, freshman Ashtyn Verbeek 6.9, and senior Maddie Simon 6.8 ppg. Assuming no one transfers, the Huskers will return their top seven scorers next season.
Field Goal %. Eight Huskers shot above .400 on field goals led by Cain (.525), Eliely (.478), Haiby (.436), Kissinger (.429), Brown (.422), junior Grace Mitchell (.417), Verbeek (.411) and Simon (.409). Kissinger (no surprise) led the Huskers in 3-point field goal % at .456 (62 made) while Whitish led in total 3-pointers with 65 (.367).
Rebounding. In the rebounding department 6’5” center Cain led the way with 5.9 rpg with 6’2” freshman post Verbeek close behind at 5.5 rpg. Guards Eliely, Kissinger, Simon, Haiby and 6’3” freshman post Kayla Mershon all averaged 3 or more rpg. Again, assuming no transfers, the Huskers return six of their top seven rebounders.
Blocked shots. Cain led all Huskers with 78 blocked shots. Verbeek had 27, Eliely 18, and Mershon 11.
Steals. Eliely showed her all-round abilities by leading the Huskers in steals with 54 on the season. Whitish had 30, Haiby 25, Kissinger 22, while Brown and Mershon each had 21.
Assists. Whitish led the Huskers with 128 assists. Haiby doled out 78 and Eliely 62.
Free throws. Taylor Kissinger didn’t get to the line as often as other Husker guards, but when she did, she made 88.2% of her free throws (30 of 34). Eliely was also over 80% making 46 of 57. Sam Haiby shot the most Huskers free throws at 106 (she is a slasher, so no surprise there) and made 76 for a .717 average. Other Huskers over 70% included Whitish, Brown, and Verbeek.
Starting lineup. Midway through the season, Kayla Mershon replaced Maddie Simon at the power forward spot in the starting lineup. Despite having the least gaudy statistics, especially in scoring at 3.6 ppg, she was the most polished defender of the freshman four. She was whistled for 41 fouls compared to 86 for Verbeek (who also plays at the post). Mershon was also much less turnover-prone than Simon (58 to 12).
Near the end of the season, Amy Williams made one more adjustment to her starting lineup in replacing Kissinger with Leigha Brown, who made six starts. The move was originally because Kissinger was ill, and I don’t know if she was fully recovered or not by the end of the season.
Outlook for Next Season
The Huskers graduate only Maddie Simon off the active roster. The other senior on the roster, graduate transfer point guard Kristian Hudson, was injured early enough in the season that Nebraska plans to apply for a medical redshirt and have her play next year.
Seniors in 2019-20
6’1” guard Nicea Eliely, 5’9” point guard Hannah Whitish, and 6’2” post Grace Mitchell will all provide senior leadership for the Huskers next season (along with Hudson if she is granted another year). Eliely is the defensive tone-setter for the Huskers and has improved on the offensive side each season. Expect her to be the do-everything player on the roster.
Whitish probably won’t have the luxury of a slow start next season. This year, Hudson’s injury and Haiby’s youth meant that Nebraska didn’t have a viable alternative to their struggling floor leader (and seriously, I am judging her ‘struggles’ compared to an all-conference sophomore year - she wasn’t really all that bad for Nebraska). The Huskers will have Hudson and Haiby as well as an incoming freshman (more later) to run point if needed next year.
Mitchell has been a lightly used player in her time at Nebraska. This season, she was limited by a foot injury but even if she returns to full health, she’ll have to make some significant strides to carve out more than a relief role.
6’5” center Kate Cain along with former 5-star recruit (and Nebraska native) 6’1” guard Taylor Kissinger will become upperclassmen next season. These two made up a recruiting class that was ranked in the Top 20.
Cain seemed to take a step backward on offense this season, but I think she will rebound (that pun again) nicely next season. She is not as athletic as the other Husker posts, but she has superb technique and incredibly soft hands. She was doing a lot of turnaround fade away shots this season and getting the ball off before she was fully squared up. If she can be a bit more patient and get herself fully facing the basket before letting go, I think she’ll sink more of those shots. She also needs to put in some work at the free throw line but that was true last season too. Even though her shot blocks dipped from last year, I think she did a better job at keeping herself out of foul trouble and providing timely help defense.
Kissinger is such a good shooter and uses her length on defense well enough that she will earn plenty of playing time. She is also sneaky good at finding the back cuts (along with Eliely). She doesn’t seem to be durable as she is often dinged up or sick as the season moves along. She’s a smart player and a long range ace.
Nebraska’s four freshman finished second in the NCAA in points scored by a freshman class. The one team ahead of them had an eight-player freshman class. Sam Haiby and Leigha Brown each earned one “Freshman of the Week” honor in Big Ten play this season.
Despite not making it into the starting lineup, Sam Haiby played the most minutes of the freshman at 21.0 per game. Haiby is a slasher guard who developed her ball handling and overall savvy enough by the end of the season that she was a “go-to” player in tight games. Even as a freshman, there was no other Husker I wanted to have the ball in late shot clock situations more than Sam Haiby. Her defense and three-point shooting came along as the season moved along but she still needs some work on both aspects (who doesn’t?). I hope Amy Williams finds creative ways to get her on the floor or build game plans around her.
Leigha Brown plays with a chip on her shoulder the size of a Volkswagon Beetle. She isn’t the slasher that Haiby is, but she is a very good penetrator and has a better long range shot than Haiby. She shot almost as many free throws (94) as Haiby (106) and drew fouls in spades. She is listed as a forward on the roster, but she handles the ball well enough that she is competing with guards Taylor Kissinger and Nicea Eliely for time at wing. Brown is fearless; I sometimes watched her take out-of-control shots or make bad moves, but they worked out for her more often than they should.
Ashtyn Verbeek is the freshman that I thought might have the most impact this season. Statistically speaking she did well, but it was clear that her defense needs a lot of work. She is a strong player who muscles her way through a lot of traffic but gets out of position more often than I’d like. Her offensive game extends out past the three point line and she plays bigger than she is, which means that she can spell Cain at center. She needs to cut down the fouls, but Amy Williams has talked about how coachable and eager she is to learn.
Kayla Mershon surprised me when Amy Williams moved her into the starting lineup. She plays her game quietly but has more savvy and polish than I originally gave her credit for. She is a good defender and, like Verbeek, can extend her offensive game out to the three-point line. She is smart and takes care of the ball. She doesn’t fill up stat lines, but makes [mostly] the right decisions.
This will be Amy Williams’ first recruiting class that isn’t ranked in the top 20, but it might be the most defining. Three players signed letters of intent.
With Hannah Whitish being a senior, Williams worked hard to recruit a true point guard. Makenzie Helms is 5’8” and averaged over 26 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals per game as a senior. That is the kind of domination you want to see in a player moving to the next level.
Isabella Bourne is coming from the land “Down Under”. The 6’2” Australian forward has a lot of international experience and her strength is considered one of her assets. It will be interesting to watch her and Ashtyn Verbeek on the floor together when Amy Williams needs someone to bully and muscle up opposing post players.
The Huskers are adding another guard who is described as “strong and powerful” in 5’11” Trinity Brady. Brady is an Indiana native but transferred to Tennessee for her senior year. She averaged over 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists through her junior season. By all accounts, she is tough as nails, has a high basketball IQ and is a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor.
Outlook for 2019-20
There seems to be a definite theme in describing the play of this year’s freshman along wtih next year’s incoming class - power, attack, strong. If I’m going to be sunny and bright, it means that this year’s discombobulation is the result of youth as well as trying to merge finesse and role players with physical players.
Maryland is the consistent Big Ten power and they recruit top 5 classes of athletic shooters. The Huskers aren’t likely to out-recruit the Terps in terms of athletic ability. We also have to contend with Rutgers, who is a physical, defensive team. What better way to deal with both new B1G powers than by developing muscle, scrappy defense, and in-your-face offense? Williams has shown that she will play every person on her roster and wants her players to earn their time on defense.
The Huskers will still be a young team next season, but I expect we will see a team that plays with attitude and grit. There is a lot of young talent in the Big Ten, so it is hard to guess right now where next year’s team will shake out in conference play, but they should be able to play toe to toe with most of their conference schedule.