Amy Williams wants four Husker freshmen to be major contributors on the court

LINCOLN — Amy Williams likes to joke that she didn’t do the Nebraska women’s basketball team any favors in constructing the nonconference schedule. It’s a beast, featuring games at Creighton, Miami, Louisville, Arkansas and Washington State. The Nov. 7 regular-season opener against Drake — which won 26 games and didn’t lose in Missouri Valley Conference play last season — is no picnic either.

“We have a high-powered offense coming in here to open things up and we’re going to have to be with it,” Williams said this week.

Before Drake, there’s an in-state exhibition Saturday with UNK. NU’s focus for the Lopers — who are replacing their top three scorers — is simple.

“Understanding the importance of every possession and playing with that sense of urgency on both the offensive and defensive side of things,” Williams said. The coach would especially like to see her four freshmen — Leigha Brown, Sam Haiby, Kayla Mershon and Ashtyn Veerbeek — continue to be major contributors. None will start. All will have significant roles.

In a secret scrimmage against Arizona State, for example, Veerbeek led all Huskers in rebounds. Brown was the leading scorer. And Mershon emerged as the game’s “top dog,” an award patterned after the multiple contributions of Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green.

The award tracks deflections, screen assists, offensive rebounds and charges taken, among other things, and comes with jewelry.

“It’s kind of a gaudy, gold chain that they get to wear around,” Williams said. “I tell them you can wear it to class if you want to or hang it in your locker. It doesn’t matter. Whoever’s top dog gets to hold on to that chain.”

After last year’s surprise trip to NCAA tourney, Husker women seeking worthy encore

LINCOLN — The only problem with a team being one year ahead of schedule is figuring out what to do for an encore.

For reigning Big Ten coach of the year Amy Williams and the Nebraska women, that’s trying to match — and perhaps top — last season’s surprise trip to the NCAA tournament. NU pumped out 21 wins, tied for third in the league and did so without a single star.

Four regular starters return from that team.

One of them, junior guard Hannah Whitish, is preseason All-Big Ten. Otherwise, it’ll be a team effort, Williams expects, against a much tougher nonconference schedule that features five road games against power conference teams. It’ll help with Nebraska’s RPI, but it’ll provide a far tougher test, too.

Which is why the theme for the season is GUTS — Gritty United Toughness Succeeds.

“That’s how we want to be known and want to play like,” Williams said at NU’s open scrimmage, which drew more than 1,000 on a midweek evening. “It’s something that we’ll be huddling out to.”

Williams thinks that motto needs to inform everything Nebraska does.

She wants a team that plays with urgency on every offensive and defensive possession. She wants better rebounding. Because NU lost top defender Jasmine Cincore to graduation, Nebraska will have to get more of a team effort on perimeter defense to go along with sophomore shot-blocking extraordinaire Kate Cain, who set the single-season school record for blocks last year (100).

And GUTS will help four highly touted freshmen — Leigha Brown, Sam Haiby, Kayla Mershon and Ashtyn Veerbeek — to understand what’s expected of them. All four, Williams said, will play significant minutes. And all four — especially Brown, a 6-foot-1 guard/forward — have a savvy that goes beyond their years.

The quartet is part of a young team — 45 percent of the roster is new and half is underclassmen — that won’t have much time to acclimate itself, as Missouri Valley champion Drake visits for NU’s season opener on Wednesday.

“At this point, we just feel like we want to win the day,” Williams said, “and find a way to get better tomorrow in practice.”

That kind of mindset takes player leadership. Williams appears to have three clear options:

»  Whitish, the junior guard who got hot in Big Ten play last year, shooting 44.2 from 3-point range. Her play in the open scrimmage indicated her shot is still good, but her 1.48-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play needs improvement.

» Senior forward and Lincoln Pius X graduate Maddie Simon, NU’s most versatile player, who rebounded from sophomore struggles to average 10.1 points and 5.3 rebounds as a junior. At 6-2, Simon can guard smaller forwards and blow by bigger posts.

“I’m thrilled with her development,” Williams said. “She’s just been able to shift and focus into playing hard, being positive and doing the things she brings to the table so well.”

» Senior graduate transfer Kristian Hudson, who started three years at Florida International before coming to Nebraska. Hudson said the open scrimmage audience was bigger than the crowd at any of her FIU home games.

The 5-5 Hudson will say she’s not much of a talker before she asks a reporter more questions than she received. On the court, she’s a clear, loud communicator in an era when many athletes are reticent to say anything.

“If I can get my teammates to talk to me, that’s interaction that’ll make it easier for me to lead them on the court,” Hudson said. “Everyone wants to be encouraged and does fairly well with praise and encouragement and love, so I just try to pass it on. Maya Angelou has a quote: ‘We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike,’ and I try to keep that in mind with people, and try to find a common base.”

That harmony is quite a change from two seasons ago, when Williams was battling the fallout of former coach Connie Yori’s resignation and a team uncertain of whom and what to trust. Williams’ first season was rocky — 7-22, the worst record in school history — and expectations headed into her second year were appropriately low.

Nebraska then shattered those expectations completely. What does it do for an encore?

“I have had nothing but positive feedback,” Williams said of newfound support for the Huskers. “We’re really excited about our team and our program, and we’ve got a lot of things to be excited about. Our fan base is kind of sharing in it.”

Notes

» Arizona State won the secret scrimmage 66-57, but only outrebounded Nebraska by three, Williams said, which was a “significant improvement” over the NCAA tournament loss to the Sun Devils.

» Williams expects senior Maddie Simon, junior Hannah Whitish and another senior graduate transfer Kristian Hudson to be team’s leaders. Hudson, a three-year starter at Florida International, will come off the bench but is one of Nebraska’s most vocal players.

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