INDIANAPOLIS — The resurgence took another step forward.
Nebraska advanced into the Big Ten tournament semifinals with a 61-54 win over Michigan on Friday night.
One year ago the Husker women were bounced out of the opening round of the tournament. Now they are inching toward solidifying an NCAA tournament spot — if they don’t already have one secured.
If Nebraska (21-9) hasn’t earned its spot in the tournament yet, there’s a chance to add quite the résumé-builder against No. 17 Maryland in a Saturday semifinal that will start about 7:30 p.m. CST in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Any talk about doing just enough to get an NCAA tourney spot isn’t happening inside the Nebraska locker room.
“This team came down to this tournament to make a run to win a championship,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said. “Our goal is not just to beat Michigan and find a way to get into the NCAA tournament. Our goal is to be Big Ten champions. We want to keep going toward that.”
There was nothing flashy about Nebraska’s win, just a balanced offensive attack and a strong defensive effort that frustrated Michigan’s leading scorer for a majority of the game.
Katelynn Flaherty, the Wolverines’ leading scorer at 23.5 points a game, hit just 6 of 20 shots from the field. She made a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, but seemed visibly frustrated for most of the game and finished with 17 points.
Nebraska didn’t want just one person chasing Flaherty around the court for the entire game and getting worn down late in the game.
“We knew we would not be able to completely stop her, but I thought mixing up our matchups on her and switch who was the defensive assignment — that’s a very tough assignment,” Williams said. “But I thought Janay Morton and Jasmine Cincore did a good job of going back and forth to give her a little bit different look and keep fresh legs on her.”
Hannah Whitish led the Huskers with 17, while Nicea Eliely added 12. Cincore and Maddie Simon each had nine points. Kate Cain added six points, seven rebounds and seven blocks — a majority coming against All-Big Ten performer Hallie Thome.
“I thought it was their other kids that actually helped them be successful,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “(Eliely) made a lot of big plays, as did Cincore. She made the big and-one late in the fourth quarter. So I think it was other kids that really stepped up for them, where some of our other kids had a little bit of an off-night.”
Nebraska’s win offers some redemption from its 69-64 overtime loss to Michigan in January.
“We definitely thought that game was taken from us,” Whitish said, “so coming out here and throwing punches like we did was huge for us.”
Every time the Wolverines (22-9) made a run and threatened to take the lead in the fourth quarter, the Huskers answered. That became a recurring theme over the final 10 minutes .
Three minutes into the quarter, Thome converted a three-point play, cutting the deficit to a point, 43-42. Nebraska scored on its next three possessions — Whitish made a 3-pointer, Cincore converted a three-point play on a drive and Janay Morton turned a steal into a layup. Within 40 seconds the lead had grown back to seven points.
But the Wolverines kept pushing. They later had the ball with a chance to take the lead, but Cincore blocked Flaherty’s 3-point shot and made a nice feed to Whitish for a layup.
The Wolverines had two possessions with a chance to tie or take the lead with just more than two minutes remaining, but the Huskers forced a turnover on each trip. Whitish made the second turnover hurt, hitting a 3-pointer to push Nebraska’s lead back to five points, 56-51, with 1:13 remaining.
Whitish had been only 1 of 7 from beyond the arc in the first half, but she made two of her three attempts in the second half.
“I was proud and happy she had the courage to take that shot,” Williams said.
Nebraska took the third-most 3-pointers in the Big Ten this season. The Huskers took 17 shots from beyond the arc in the first half but just six in the second half.
ESPN analyst Charlie Creme had NU listed among his first four teams out of the NCAA tourney prior to the Big Ten tournament. The Huskers might play themselves in on the strength of their win over Michigan. Purdue — one of his last four teams Creme listed in the tourney — lost its opening game.
If Nebraska can upset Maryland, that would go a long way toward clinching a spot in the tourney. The Huskers have fallen twice to the Terps, but they lost by just two last week at Maryland.
Big Ten Tournament: Nebraska vs. Maryland
When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM