More Experienced Huskers Bring IT
After a season of learning from the school of hard knocks, close calls and an unprecedented number of narrow losses, a more experienced Nebraska women's basketball team plans to "Bring IT" in 2019-20.
Last season, Nebraska featured four freshmen who combined for the most points (893) by a group of Husker freshmen since 1981-82. The youth movement provided promise for the future, but the Huskers lost 10 games by six points or less on their way to a 14-16 season.
The Huskers displayed growth throughout the season, notching a 9-9 Big Ten mark that included three wins by six or fewer points from Jan. 20 to the end of the season.
The 2019-20 Huskers feature three-year starters in All-Big Ten guard Hannah Whitish and senior wing Nicea Eliely. They also bring back experienced junior starters Kate Cain and Taylor Kissinger along with a sophomore class that features explosive talent in Sam Haiby, Leigha Brown and Ashtyn Veerbeek.
In all, Nebraska returns its top seven scorers from a year ago. Although Nebraska must replace departed senior Maddie Simon (6.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg), it also returns sophomore starter Kayla Mershon, fifth-year senior point guard Kristian Hudson and senior forward Grace Mitchell, while adding Australian U19 National Team forward Isabelle Bourne and fellow freshmen Trinity Brady and Makenzie Helms.
"We feel excited and optimistic about the season, as we work to build on lessons learned last year and throughout the offseason," Coach Amy Williams said. "Returning all but one player and adding some talented newcomers has led to the optimism and expectations we have for ourselves."
Last year, Nebraska went 4-10 in games decided by two possessions, and the Huskers believe they let losses happen because of a lack of urgency.
That understanding led to the team's 2019-20 mantra "Bring IT."
The Huskers are asking themselves to practice and play with heightened intensity and emotion every time they take the court. They are also committed to "Invest Together" to increase their trust in each other on and off the floor.
"Our foreign tour this summer provided some incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences and kick-started our team cohesiveness and understanding of each other," Williams said. "We were also able to address and work on some specific areas of concern such as pace of play and rebounding."
Williams, the Big Ten Coach of the Year after leading the Huskers to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, hopes to lead Nebraska back to the postseason in 2020.
"Overall, I am incredibly proud of the growth of our upperclassmen in leadership," Williams said. "They have been focused and driven to ensure that this team is invested."
Whitish, Eliely, Cain and Kissinger were key players in Nebraska's trip to the Big Dance in 2018. Whitish was a second-team All-Big Ten choice in 2018 and an honorable-mention pick in 2019. The 5-9 guard led the Big Red in scoring (10.1 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg) for the second straight season in 2019.
Whitish enters her senior season needing just 34 points tor reach 1,000 in her career, while needing just 37 assists to reach the 400 career mark in that category.
She is also just five three-pointers away from becoming the third Husker with 200 career threes.
"We are happy with the growth Hannah has shown this offseason, particularly in the leadership category," Williams said. "She is entering this season extremely motivated to make her mark here at Nebraska and return to the NCAA Tournament."
The 6-1 Eliely has started 84 career games and had a career-high 54 steals, while averaging 7.9 points per game as a junior.
One of the Big Ten's top defenders, Eliely will be key in helping improve a defense that allowed 70.1 points per game in 2019.
"Nicea is poised to have a great senior season," Williams said. "She has committed to more time in the gym, and it definitely showed in the three games we played in Europe this summer. She is probably our most complete player, and we will look for her to make big contributions on both sides of the ball this year."
Cain, a 6-5 junior, joins Eliely as a defensive anchor. Cain carries 179 career blocks after setting the school season record with 100 rejections as a freshman. She added 79 last year and needs 60 to claim Nebraska's career record in that category.
"We are very excited about the growth Kate has shown since the completion of last season," Williams said. "She has a different, more aggressive and positive mindset, and it is making a difference in her play. In Europe, she was much more mobile and moved better on both ends of the court."
Kissinger made 24 starts and averaged 8.9 points while leading the Big Ten and ranking fourth in the nation in three-point percentage (.456) as a sophomore. She helped the Huskers average 72.4 points – 3.6 more points per game than 2018.
"Taylor is coming off a very good sophomore season where she finished as one of the top-five three-point shooters in the country," Williams said. "She is motivated now that she is an upperclassman to broaden her skills and help our team become a better defensive and rebounding team."
Sophomores Ready to Rise
While those four Huskers may provide the most experience for Nebraska, Brown, Haiby, Veerbeek and Mershon supply the ingredients for the most growth.
Haiby was NU's No. 2 scorer (10.0 ppg) while playing 21 minutes per game. She also led Nebraska with 106 free throw attempts and will look to put even more pressure on the opposition as a sophomore.
"Playing with a consistent sense of urgency has been a focus for Sam this offseason," Williams said. "We have also seen a commitment to work on the consistency of her perimeter shot, and she is shooting with more confidence."
The 6-1 Brown showed moments of explosiveness as a freshman. She was Nebraska's No. 3 scorer (9.6 ppg) despite playing less than 19 minutes per contest. She had an outstanding offseason, averaging a team-best 19.7 points on NU's three-game tour of Europe. Her toughness and leadership could be driving forces for Nebraska's growth.
"Leigha has been attacking things with a different mindset since the end of last season," Williams said. "She has a different level of intensity and a different confidence about her."
Veerbeek averaged 6.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in less than 17 minutes per game last season. The 6-2 forward from Sioux Center, Iowa, can score at all three levels, and has a variety of moves around the basket. She is also an excellent free throw shooter, giving her a full arsenal of offensive weapons.
She put her explosiveness on full display with 19 points and eight rebounds in just 22 minutes in Nebraska's win at Illinois on Jan. 17. She added 14 points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes in a win at Purdue two weeks later.
"Moving into her sophomore season, Ashtyn is feeling more comfortable with our system and her teammates, which is allowing her to be a more dangerous threat," Williams said. "She knows where her opportunities are going to come, so she is shot-ready and looking to score."
While Veerbeek showed her explosiveness as a freshman, Mershon provided reliability and consistency inside for the Huskers. Although she averaged just 3.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, Mershon started 14 games, including 13 Big Ten contests.
"Kayla is a very unselfish player who takes pride in doing the little things right," Williams said. "She led our team in assist-to-turnover ratio last year as a freshman and showed an ability to lock in to scouting report defense. That dependability with increased rebounding effort should equate to a great sophomore season."
Freshman Trio Could Make Impact
Another young forward could add to Nebraska's quality and depth inside this season. Freshman Isabelle Bourne, who spent the summer with the Australian U19 National Team, could make an immediate impact.
The 6-2 Bourne averaged 8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 23 minutes per game while helping the Gems to a silver medal at the World Cup. The Australians pushed the USA U19 team to overtime in the gold medal game in Bangkok, Thailand at the end of July.
Bourne, who was also a member of the U17 and U18 Australian National Teams and the Australian U17 3-on-3 Team, brings an extraordinary amount of high level international experience to the Husker roster.
"We are so excited to have Issie in a Husker uniform," Williams said. "She spent her summer training and competing with some of the best players in the world with Team Australia, and those experiences will help her make the transition to Division I college basketball. She knows how to work and how to win, and know that will help our team."
Fellow freshmen Trinity Brady and Makenzie Helms complete Nebraska's three-player freshman class.
Brady, who was one of the top high school players in Indiana two years ago before playing her senior season at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Tennessee, gives Nebraska a big, versatile presence on the wing.
"Our coaching staff has been very impressed with Trintity's coachability and how quickly she picks things up," Williams said. "She is already one of our better help-defenders and she is determined and focused. She brings a fun, upbeat personality to our team, and we need that energy."
Helms, the 2019 Connecticut Player of the Year, spent the offseason recovering from surgeries on her legs to relieve pain caused by compartment syndrome - something Nebraska Coach Amy Williams had experience with as a player herself.
Although Helms was limited during the offseason and did not play in Europe, she was approaching full speed at the start of fall practice and could supply depth in the Husker backcourt.
As a high school senior, Helms averaged 26.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 4.3 steals at East Haven High School. She was rated as the No. 27 point guard in the nation by ESPN.
The Journey Ahead
As a team, the Huskers will shoot to "Bring IT" from start-to-finish, beginning with an exhibition game against Rogers State at Pinnacle Bank Arena (Nov. 2). Rogers State provided Coach Williams with her first head coaching job, and the Oklahoma school currently features former Husker Jasmine Cincore as an assistant coach.
The Big Red open regular-season play against another former Husker when Alabama A&M comes to Lincoln. The Bulldogs are led by Margaret Richards, who played for coaches Paul Sanderford and Connie Yori at Nebraska as a four-year letterwinner (2001-04). Alabama A&M also features Lincoln Northeast High School graduate Nigeria Jones and Omaha North guard Dariauna Lewis.
The game with Alabama A&M, which is scheduled for a special noon tip on Wednesday, Nov. 6, will be preceded by the Nebraska Life Skills Sportsmanship Pep Rally on the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Huskers make their first road trip by traveling to 2019 NCAA Tournament qualifier Missouri (Nov. 10). They return home for a four-game stand featuring Morgan State (Nov. 14), SIUE (Nov. 17), Southern (Nov. 20) and Creighton (Nov. 24). The game with SIUE will be part of Alumni Weekend, when the Huskers will honor members of the 2010 Big 12 Champion and NCAA Sweet 16 team on the 10th anniversary of their undefeated regular season in 2009-10.
The Huskers will spend Thanksgiving in Las Vegas at the South Point Shootout, where they will face USC (Nov. 29) and Sacred Heart (Nov. 30), before returning to Pinnacle Bank Arena to take on perennial power Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (Dec. 4).
Nebraska closes non-conference play at home against Oral Roberts (Dec. 14) and Manhattan (Dec. 22), before opening Big Ten play at home against defending Big Ten Tournament champion and NCAA Elite Eight qualifier Iowa (Dec. 28).
The game with Iowa tips off an 18-game conference schedule that includes home battles with Minnesota (Jan. 4), Wisconsin (Jan. 9), Michigan (Jan. 19), Purdue (Jan. 22), Ohio State (Feb. 2), Indiana (Feb. 9), Penn State (Feb. 13) and Illinois (Feb. 22).
The Huskers open their nine-game Big Ten road schedule at Michigan State (Dec. 31), followed by road trips to Rutgers (Jan. 12), Maryland (Jan. 16), Wisconsin (Jan. 25), Minnesota (Jan. 30), Iowa (Feb. 6), Northwestern (Feb. 16), Ohio State (Feb. 19) and Indiana (Feb. 27).
The Big Ten Tournament returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (March 4-8), before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show reveals the 64-team field on March 16.
NCAA first and second rounds will be held March 20-23, before Regionals are held in Dallas, Texas, Fort Wayne, Ind., Greenville, S.C., and Portland, Ore., March 27-30.
The NCAA Women's Final Four will take place at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, April 3-5.