LINCOLN — When a bad team gets good, the media spotlight can lag behind the performance, but as extra reporters filed in to the Nebraska women’s basketball press conference on Wednesday, and coach Amy Williams talked for nearly 20 minutes, the Huskers were getting plenty of attention.
A season sweep of Iowa — which included a jaw-dropping 56-26 halftime lead over the Hawkeyes in Sunday’s win — can do that.
“We were very close to the best version of what I’ve seen of us for those first 20 minutes,” Williams said. The last 20 minutes in the 92-74 win weren’t quite as clean, though, and Williams said Nebraska players can learn from the mistakes on tape.
This still-young team seems to know that already. Right after the Huskers won, Williams said, their focus had already turned to an upcoming three-game homestand and the first team on it.
Illinois. Which is 0-9 in Big Ten play. First-year coach. Cringe-worthy defense. One great post player — Alex Wittinger, averaging 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in Big Ten games — surrounded by new and inexperienced pieces. Lots of growing pains.
Sounds a lot like Williams’ first Husker team, which won two league games. Williams said Illinois is better than NU was last season. A 9-14 record — the Huskers finished 7-22 — seems to confirm that.
“There’s no question in my mind that Illinois is just scratching at the surface,” said Williams, praising Illini first-year coach Nancy Fahey. “… We have a lot of respect for this team. They provide some matchup problems.”
Said guard Jasmine Cincore: “Every team in the Big Ten — you don’t know who’s going to win that night. Every game’s a battle, and we’re looking at it that way.”
So Big Ten bully and No. 11 Maryland — which visits Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday — can wait? Yes. Williams wouldn’t really entertain questions about the Terrapins, annually the league’s most dominant team, who sit one game ahead of the Huskers in the conference standings. Williams said an assistant mentioned to her that Nebraska could be as low as seventh in the Big Ten after this week.
“There’s no reason for us to get big for our britches at this point,” Williams said.
Cincore, the 5-10 senior who often draws the opposing team’s best, typifies Williams’ approach. Before the season, Williams told Cincore she wanted her to affect the game in ways that don’t always show up in the traditional stat sheet. Leadership was part of the plan, but Williams wanted Cincore to be active and aggressive on defense, to cover the floor and set a tone.
“Hustle,” Cincore said. “Either you do it or you don’t. It’s not really a skill, it’s just going after it, and that’s contagious. I’ve taken that on and it’s kind of trickled down into the rest of my teammates.”
Cincore’s personal hustle stats include total deflections — “I try to get my hand on the ball as many times as possible” — rebounding and keeping whoever she’s guarding as below their scoring average. Cincore shouldered even more of the defensive load earlier this season when two of NU’s better perimeter defenders — Nicea Eliely and Janay Morton — were recovering from injuries.
Eliely and Morton are now 100 percent, and Cincore is, too. And that health and chemistry is showing in NU’s defense, which has given up 60.2 points per game in its last five contests. Nebraska is sometimes extending its defense further and further out on the floor, as well. Cincore is usually the lead defender causing trouble.
“Jasmine has had so many games this year where maybe she didn’t pad all of the stats or show up in the statistical categories, but we knew she had set the tone for our team defensively, and she had done a lot of little small details that people don’t see,” Williams said.
Those details are adding up to wins. Nebraska now stands 16-6 overall and 7-2 in the Big Ten and squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble. Williams said, yes, the best version of what Nebraska can be is better at this point than she thought it might have been before the season.
But she still wants the Huskers working harder than any other team. Illinois, Maryland, whomever.
“That hasn’t changed, it’s not going to change, it never will, it doesn’t matter what the outside world wants to talk about,” Williams said. “Us, and those 12 ladies — that’s where our focus remains.”
» Williams said freshman Taylor Kissinger, who has been playing while recovering from a knee injury, is “very, very close to 100 percent.” Kissinger is averaging 7.6 points and 32.6 percent 3-point shooting in Big Ten games.
» Illinois is allowing opponents to hit 43.3 percent of their 3-pointers in league play, while the Huskers are hitting 37.4 percent in Big Ten play.
» NU’s RPI was 50 as of Wednesday afternoon.
Illinois at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
Illinois (9-14, 0-9)
F, Alex Wittinger, 6-1, Jr., 14.0
F, Ali Andrews, 6-2, So., 7.7
G, Brandi Beasley, 5-7, So., 12.1
G, Cierra Rice, 5-9, So., 5.4
G, Courtney Joens, 5-10, So., 3.8
Nebraska (16-6, 7-2)
C, Kate Cain 6-5, Fr., 10.5
F, Maddie Simon 6-2, Jr., 11.2
G, Hannah Whitish 5-9, So., 13.6
G, Jasmine Cincore 5-10, Sr., 7.2
G, Nicea Eliely 6-1, So., 8.6