Playing free is paying off for Husker women’s basketball

Playing free is paying off for Husker women’s basketball
Nebraska coach Amy Williams asked her team for more toughness and it has delivered this season. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — As she finished her press conference Friday, Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams looked back at reporters and smiled.

“You guys were easy on me,” she said.

It’s tough to poke at three straight wins on the road that leave NU at 12-5 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten. Nebraska has five more wins than it did all of last season, and the same number of league wins it had in 2016-17. The Huskers are inching closer to the NCAA tournament bubble.

Williams asked her team for more toughness, and it has delivered, especially in the areas that Williams said determine winning and losing: defense and rebounding. NU gives up 11.5 fewer points per game than last season and has a plus-4.5 rebounding margin. And the offense doesn’t yo-yo between random chaos and stand-around-and-watch syndrome.

“They’re not having to think so much,” Williams said. “They’re comfortable with where they’re supposed to be and where their shots are going to be coming from … and now they can just kind of play basketball and be free to make some plays.”

Now, the road warriors have a big score to settle at home.

Fresh off three straight Big Ten road wins, Nebraska is back in Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday night to play No. 23 Michigan, which beat the Huskers by 28 and 33 points last year. The 84-51 loss at PBA was particularly ugly, with Nebraska slamming the wall so hard in the fourth quarter it didn’t make a shot for the last nine minutes, 48 seconds.

“Thanks for reminding me,” NU coach Amy Williams deadpanned Friday. “I’ve watched both of those game films. It’s motivating to me, it’s motivating to the players.”

Not that road wins at Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois weren’t tests; the Gophers have three Big Ten wins and the Wildcats have two. But none of those three teams is a lock to make the NCAA tournament.

Michigan and Tuesday’s home opponent, No. 18 Iowa, very much are. That makes the stakes different. Rattle off two wins in PBA, and the season goes from a pleasant surprise to potentially meteoric — ahead of anyone’s schedule.

Beating the Wolverines would mean corralling what Williams calls “extremely special” personnel, starting with UM senior guard Katelynn Flaherty. She is Michigan’s all-time leading scorer and averaging 22.9 points per game this season. She dropped a total of 52 points in two games against Nebraska last season.

“Incredible talent,” Williams said.

“She’s a great player,” Nebraska sophomore guard Hannah Whitish said. “She can score at all levels and we’re going to have to stop her. Get a hand in her face all night. We’ve been working on different matchups against her. When she gets rid of the ball, don’t give it back to her.”

Michigan balances out Flaherty with 6-foot-5 center Hallie Thome, a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, and several other 3-point shooters.

Nebraska’s own balance on offense means four players average in double digits and seven players average at least five points per game. If junior Maddie Simon — now a full-timer in the post — has made the biggest leap in scoring, Whitish remains the rock upon which the team is built. She hit a career-high six 3-pointers at Illinois, including a fourth-quarter dagger that gave Nebraska a five-point lead in the final minute.

“We watched her expect to start to have a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, expect to make baskets and to want the ball in certain situations,” Williams said. “To watch her grow up like that, it’s been fun to watch.”

Whitish isn’t shy about shooting — she leads the team in shots — but she likes the democracy of Williams’ offense, too. There’s movement and cutters and multiple 3-point shooters, all built around freshman center Kate Cain anchoring the post. Whitish has more than twice as many assists as any other Husker.

“Push the ball, and if there’s any easy looks we have all of our transition sets,” Whitish said. “You can run any of them, and if anybody’s denied there’s always another option. It’s pretty great. It’s nice when you’re a player to know there’s different options.”

After three straight wins, two games vs. ranked foes present a big opportunity

Notes

» As of Friday afternoon, Michigan’s RPI is 40 while Nebraska’s is 73.

» Michigan is 14-0 against unranked teams and 0-4 against ranked teams, including a 78-71 overtime loss to Ohio State.

» The Wolverines were snubbed from the NCAA tournament last season but won the postseason WNIT title. NU leads the all-time series against Michigan 11-3. It was 11-1 before last season.

No. 23 Michigan at Nebraska

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM Nebraska City

MICHIGAN (14-4, 3-2)

C Hallie Thome, 6-5, Jr., 16.6

F Jillian Dunston, 5-11, Sr., 3.4

F Hailey Brown, 6-1, Fr., 8.3

G Nicole Munger, 5-11, Jr., 10.3

G Katelynn Flaherty, 5-7, Sr., 22.9

NEBRASKA (12-5, 3-1)

C Kate Cain, 6-5, Fr., 10.9

F Maddie Simon, 6-2, Jr., 11.0

G Hannah Whitish, 5-9, So., 13.6

G Jasmine Cincore, 5-10, Sr., 6.9

G Nicea Eliely, 6-1, So., 8.4

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