LINCOLN — Maddie Simon glanced up and tilted her chin toward the ceiling of the practice gym.
“Ever since I’ve played here I look at that banner,” she said.
The one for the Big Ten tournament title Nebraska women’s basketball captured in 2014. Simon was a junior guard at Lincoln Pius X then, one day removed from losing the Class B state title game, so she doesn’t exactly remember Jordan Hooper and the gals cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
But Simon sees the legacy that game left behind.
“It’s definitely something we look at as motivation, to want to stick our name on that wall,” Simon said.
The third-seeded Huskers think they can do it. Three days, three games, hoist a trophy, and leave no doubt about the NCAA tournament bid. The odds don’t favor them winning the tournament —they are 0-3 against the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, Ohio State and Maryland, and aren’t sure if the shoulder of their top reserve, freshman Taylor Kissinger, will be healthy enough for Friday night’s quarterfinal game against Michigan.
But Simon and her coach, Amy Williams, weren’t wavering Wednesday just before the team left for the airport.
“We’ve showed and proved ourselves that we can be competitive with whoever we’re matched up against,” Simon said.
“We feel like we can make a run — just like everybody else in this league,” Williams said.
Tough nonconference home losses to Creighton, Clemson and Washington State gave way to a strong run in the Big Ten, which could send seven or eight teams to the NCAA tournament. Williams said NU got healthy for league play, and it lost just once — to Ohio State — by double digits.
“Once we started to really put things together, we’ve had some key wins,” Williams said. “We’ve been able to go on the road and win.”
And when the Huskers (20-9) play well, it usually coincides with a strong performance by Simon, who has a sharp wit in interviews and has found her stride on the court after switching from guard to power forward in the offseason. This season, she averaged 25.5 minutes, 10.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists in Big Ten play. Last year, those splits were 13.1 / 3.9 / 2.1 / 1.1.
Simon’s a different player. Nebraska’s a different team.
She had been a guard all her life, so the move, she said, was “a little scary” at first.
“I’ve not really seen myself as a back-to-the-basket type of player,” Simon said.
Williams and assistant Chuck Love lobbied for the change, though, because Williams wanted Simon dribbling and thinking less. Indeed, when she played guard last season, Simon vacillated between taking quick, wild shots and hot-potato passing. She took criticism hard. Earlier this season, Simon’s eyes welled with tears when asked about last season, the worst in Husker history.
“I’ve tried to put that behind me,” she said.
Nebraska has more — and more experienced — guards now, so Simon slips down to the 4 and becomes a matchup problem. She’s quicker than most of the defenders who guard her, and she’s developed a few moves around the basket — an up-and-under, for one — that can work. Williams and Love want Simon to have a “score-first mentality.” She’s not always efficient — shooting 36.7 percent in Big Ten games — but, against conference opponents, she draws more fouls and gets to the foul line more than any other Husker.
“It’s very easy to point to the games where Maddie either didn’t play because of injury or Maddie wasn’t contributing as much as she normally does and how our team struggles to succeed,” Williams said.
Williams is right. Simon missed three of Nebraska’s nonconference losses to Creighton, Buffalo and Clemson. In NU’s other six losses, Simon shot 29.1 percent from the floor and averaged 7.2 points.
When Simon has been on — senior night against Penn State —she’s been the difference. Against a Lady Lion defense that frustrated all of Simon’s teammates, she found room to cut to the basket and finished with 16 points and six rebounds. She made 6 of 8 free throws and 5 of 12 shots. In two wins over Iowa — the Huskers’ two best wins by RPI standards — Simon dominated, scoring 19 points in each, routinely drawing fouls.
“As the season’s gone on, I’ve been able to find my spots and find ways to get involved and kind of get in a flow of where we’re going to get our shots, what the driving lanes are, where the open looks are going to come from,” Simon said.
There’s at least one game she wants back. Her teammates do, too. That overtime loss to Michigan, when NU was whistled for a questionable shooting foul at the end of regulation. Simon had a bad game. She missed all four shots. She scored one point.
The Wolverines now likely stand between Nebraska and a NCAA tournament bid.
Simon, a little salty, is ready.
“We’re actually really excited that Michigan’s on our side of the bracket,” Simon said. “We want revenge on that game. I think, if anyone, that’s who we want to play, prove them wrong. The call that lost us the game, we want to get that back and advance as far as we can in this tournament.”
Big Ten tournament: Nebraska vs. Michigan
When: Approx. 7:30 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM
F Maddie Simon 6-2 Jr. 10.6
C Kate Cain 6-5 Fr. 10.3
G Hannah Whitish 5-9 So. 12.7
G Nicea Eliely 6-1 So. 8.5
G Jasmine Cincore 5-10 Sr. 6.4
F Jillian Dunston 5-11 Sr. 3.4
G Katelynn Flaherty 5-7 Sr. 23.4
G Nicole Munger 5-11 Jr. 9.7
C Hallie Thome 6-5 Jr. 16.9
G Deja Church 5-10 Fr. 7.1