Nebraska women clinch Big Ten tournament double-bye with win over Penn State

LINCOLN — The women’s basketball teams for Nebraska and Penn State on Thursday night combined for 110 points — and 87 missed shots.

“Thank God we were rebounding,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said after the Huskers’ 59-51 win over Penn State.

And how. The Huskers outrebounded PSU — traditionally a physical, athletic team — 60-31. Nebraska had 20 offensive rebounds. Freshman center Kate Cain — on NU’s Senior Night — delivered in the biggest way with 20 of those boards, including eight on the offensive end.

“Almost the entire season, rebounding has been one of the main things we’ve been keying on,” Cain said.

The 6-foot-5 post, who gets red-faced at every compliment, had at least that many floor burns, too, as she threw her long frame onto the court for loose balls. Williams saw another freshman, Taylor Kissinger, doing the same.

When you want to lock up the coveted double-bye in the Big Ten tournament — which the Huskers did — games have to be won by any means necessary.

“Very great performance from Kate,” Williams said. “Her and Taylor both showed a desire to get a little more physical. Go down there and grind out some rebounds, which is something that, a lot of times, you can’t count on or depend on freshman for. Those two young ladies have really sparked us down the stretch with rebounding.”

Nebraska (20-8 overall and 11-4 in the Big Ten) needed that effort because its offense again was stuck like cars in slushy snow. Teams have begun to pressure NU’s guards outside the 3-point line and force them to drive to the basket.

Thursday night, Penn State (15-13 and 6-9) forced 17 turnovers and harassed the Huskers into missing 18 of 20 from 3-point range — a season-low 10 percent from beyond the arc. Starting guards Nicea Eliely and Jasmine Cincore didn’t make a shot from the floor. Williams said the Huskers need to get better at transitioning from beating a press — which they did well — to running the offense, which they didn’t.

That’s why, late in the second quarter, NU held just a 22-21 lead.

Junior forward Maddie Simon then had a surge that decided the game. Nebraska finished the first half on a 10-3 run, and Simon  scored seven of those points. She drove to the basket instead of settling for pull-up shots. Simon finished with 16 points and reached the foul line eight times. She also had six rebounds.

Nebraska led 32-24 at halftime, built a 12-point lead early in the third quarter and never led by fewer than five points for the rest of the game. NU shot 30.8 percent from the floor, but Penn State (28.1 percent) was even worse. PSU’s leading scorer, Teniya Page, missed all 10 of her shots from the floor in the first half and finished 4 for 18.

“We played tough defense,” Simon said. “We knew they were good jump shooters and we tried to get up in their face and contest every shot.”

Penn State relented in the final minute, allowing the Huskers to dribble out the game, which clinched at least the No. 3 seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament.

Nebraska can be No. 2 if it beats Maryland Sunday. The Terrapins lost Thursday night at Michigan and stand even with the Huskers at 11-4 in the league. Ohio State, at 12-3, has already clinched a share of the league crown. Should the Buckeyes lose at Penn State on Sunday, and the Huskers upset Maryland, Nebraska would share the league regular-season crown.

Simon freely admitted the team talked about that chance in the locker room. Yes, it’s always one game at a time. But there’s only one game left. And it’s about as big as they come.

“We’ve accomplished so much,” Simon said. “I’m so proud of this team and how hard we’ve worked and played together and stayed together as a team. It’s just been fun. It’s just been great.”

Penn State (15-13, 6-9)……………11 13 13 14—51

At Nebraska (20-8, 11-4)………….16 16 13 14—59

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