LINCOLN — When it started to get sketchy for the Nebraska women’s team Sunday, senior Maddie Simon relied on three years of chemistry with junior Hannah Whitish. All those games, all those possessions, all those offensive sets.
Thus, with the shot clock down to its nub and NU’s big lead cut in half, Simon threw what looked like a risky cross-court pass. But Whitish was there, 17 feet from the hoop, and when her jumper landed in the basket — the net barely rippling — Nebraska’s upset bid over No. 24 Michigan State was back on steady ground.
The Huskers won 82-71.
Simon and Whitish were among five Huskers in double figures, and NU’s roller-coaster season hit another high point. But the win wasn’t seamless. Nothing about this season has been.
A Michigan State trap — and NU’s struggles to handle it — whittled a 21-point lead to eight. The 5,588 at Pinnacle Bank Arena — on their feet minutes earlier — had grown nervous and tight with 2:27 remaining.
Simon’s pass — and Whitish’s make — triggered a 6-0 run that slammed the door on the Spartans.
“After three years of playing together, I know I can trust that she’s going to go out (to the spot), even if there’s two seconds left, and she made it count,” Simon said.
Nebraska (12-14, 7-8 Big Ten) made its 24 attempts from 3-point range count, too. NU hit a season-high 12 3-pointers against the Spartans’ tight man-to-man defense. Freshman forward Leigha Brown, getting her second start, hit two of them in the opening two minutes to force MSU coach Suzy Merchant to call timeout.
Only the Spartans’ trap defense, which helped force 22 turnovers, kept them close in the first half. Once Nebraska busted it a few times, Michigan State (17-8, 7-7) pulled back and NU attacked, taking a 42-26 halftime lead.
“I thought our kids were pretty glued in and locked in to the defensive game plan,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said. Michigan State, one of the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooting teams, hit 6 of 25 from long range and committed 23 turnovers — eight of which were travels.
NU’s lead grew to 50-28 early in the second half. After three quarters, NU led 62-41.
“I thought that was some of the best basketball we’ve played this season,” said Simon of the first 30 minutes.
That final quarter? Forgettable.
Michigan State employed the trap again, and Nebraska was consistently flustered by it. Guards got trapped near the sideline, forwards flubbed passes thrown to them at midcourt and the offense as a whole, if it crossed the timeline, seemed rushed. After freshman Sam Haiby was whistled for an offensive foul with NU leading 67-59, Williams called timeout.
“They punched us, and we needed to punch back,” Whitish said.
NU did so with defense.
Over the final five minutes, center Kate Cain got three blocks. Nebraska forced Michigan State to take longer and riskier 3-pointers, which it missed. NU’s offense got the key 6-0 run — Whitish scored four of her team-leading 16 in that stretch. Nebraska also made nine of its last 10 free throws.
So the Huskers notched another big home win against an NCAA tournament hopeful one week after doing the same to Purdue. Williams said Nebraska has tossed out all its season goals and chosen — for the last three games — to focus on just the game in front of it. NU has won two of them.
It’s a mindset NU will need for the Big Ten tournament, which it almost certainly must win to make any NCAA goals reachable.
“It’s time for us to shift to ‘what can we do, right here today to win the day,’ ” Williams said.