Indianapolis – Jessica Shepard and Hannah Whitish each scored 16 points to lead five Huskers in double figures, but the Nebraska women’s basketball team had its season end with a 79-70 loss to Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday.
Shepard, a 6-4 sophomore forward who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, added 10 rebounds to finish the season with 15 double-doubles. Whitish added a career-high nine assists to go along with five rebounds.
Whitish’s fellow freshman Nicea Eliely added 14 points, five rebounds and a career-high-matching six assists, while knocking down a career-high four three-pointers – all in the second half for the Huskers.
Eliely scored all 14 of her points in the second half to help the Huskers battle back from a 16-point second-quarter deficit to take a seven-point lead in the final 30 seconds of the third quarter.
But in a game of drastic scoring swings, the 12th-seeded Illini closed the game on a 10-2 surge to secure the win and advance to Thursday’s second round to face No. 5 seed Purdue. Illinois improved to 9-21 overall, while 13th-seeded Nebraska closed the season at 7-22 and 3-13 in the Big Ten.
Junior guard Jasmine Cincore played a strong game for the Huskers with 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting, including a trio of three-pointers, while adding four rebounds and three assists.
Senior center Allie Havers added a solid effort with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, six rebounds and three blocked shots in the last of her 125 career games for the Huskers.
Nebraska fell despite hitting 47.4 percent (27-57) of its shots from the field, including a season-high 13 three-pointers on 44.8 percent (13-29) shooting. NU went just 3-of-7 from the free throw line, but outrebounded the Illini, 41-30.
Illinois, which played without its leading scorer and rebounder Alex Wittinger because of a broken hand, answered with 39.3 percent (24-61) shooting, including 14-of-32 threes (.438). The 27 combined threes by both teams were the most in a game in Nebraska history. The Illini also knocked down 17-of-22 free throws (.773) and won the turnover battle, 17-5.
Turnovers plagued the Big Red late in the fourth quarter, as the Huskers were held to just two points in the final five minutes while committing multiple miscues on the offensive end.
The Huskers, who held a 61-54 lead with 22 seconds left in the third quarter, held their final lead of the game at 66-64 after Eliely’s fourth three of the contest with 6:42 remaining.
But Wittinger’s replacement in the Illini starting lineup, 6-2 freshman forward Ali Andrews, hit three three-pointers in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. Her sixth and final three with 5:26 left gave the Illini a 69-66 edge.
Andrews led all scorers with a career-high 24 points that included 6-of-10 three-point shooting. She also had six rebounds and four steals.
Freshman guard Petra Holesinska pitched in 21 points and four assists, while knocking down a pair of threes. Fellow freshman Brandi Beasley added 20 points, including 3-of-3 three-point shooting, to go along with six rebounds and three assists. Beasley was 6-for-45 from three-point range during the Big Ten season, but went 4-for-4 against the Huskers in two meetings.
The Huskers jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead in the first two minutes after back-to-back three-pointers by Cincore and Shepard. The Huskers maintained an eight-point lead at 12-4 after Shepard’s second three-pointer with 4:54 left in the quarter.
However, the Illini closed the quarter on an 18-2 surge over the final 4:40 that started with back-to-back three-pointers by Andrews, before two more threes from Holesinska and Courtney Joens gave Illinois its first lead at 16-14 with 2:15 left. Holesinska closed the quarter with six straight points to cap a 12-0 run by the Illini.
Illinois pushed its advantage to 16 points at 30-14, as Ashley McConnell capped a 20-0 Illini run with her three-pointer with 7:42 left in the second quarter.
However, Nebraska took a timeout and found an answer with a 13-0 run of its own that began with a three-point play from Havers, then a short jumper for Shepard, before Whitish scored eight straight points in just 1:08 to cut the Illini margin to 30-27 with 3:50 left in the half.
The two teams traded threes before Grace Mitchell scored after an offensive rebound following an Eliely missed free throw to cut the Illini margin to 33-32 with 1:32 left in the half. Holesinska hit a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to send the two teams to halftime with Illinois leading 36-32.
Illinois hit 37.5 percent (12-32) of its first-half shots, including 7-of-16 threes (.438). The Illini also hit 5-of-7 free throws and won the first-half turnover battle, 7-3. Holesinska led Illinois with 13 first-half points, while Andrews added 10 points and Joens contributed a pair of threes.
Nebraska hit 38.7 percent (12-31) of its shots in the first half, including 6-of-16 threes (.375), while connecting on 2-of-5 free throws. NU won the first-half rebounding battle, 23-19. Shepard led Nebraska with 10 points, while Whitish pitched in eight points and Cincore added seven.