Raising the Bar: Big Red Want More in 2019
After producing the nation’s best turnaround in 2017-18, Coach Amy Williams and the Nebraska women’s basketball team will take aim at earning a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19.
Williams, who enters her third season guiding the Huskers, led Nebraska to a 21-11 overall record that marked a 14-game improvement in the win column over Nebraska’s 2016-17 campaign. The Huskers added a top-four finish in the Big Ten regular-season standings with an 11-5 record and a trip to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals before advancing to the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
"I watched last year’s team work extremely hard all postseason, summer and preseason," Williams said. "Their commitment was really made mostly in strength and conditioning. They pushed themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of and because of that, it built confidence. It was truly a snowball effect. Their confidence in themselves and each other turned into chemistry and commitment. Nobody really cared about their own egos. They were a selfless team that put each other first."
Nebraska’s unselfish, team-first approach became infectious throughout the season and the conference took notice by naming Williams the 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Now, Williams and the Huskers are faced with a new set of challenges in 2018-19.
The Big Red must replace graduated senior guards Jasmine Cincore, Janay Morton and Emily Wood, while facing a significantly stronger schedule that includes NCAA Women’s Final Four qualifier Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, NCAA Tournament teams Miami and Creighton on the road, and Washington State (Pac-12) and Arkansas (SEC) in early season road games.
"We have put together a very challenging non-conference schedule, playing against four NCAA Tournament teams from last season, including a pair of conference champions," Williams said. "This should prepare us for the new 18-game Big Ten schedule we will face."
Nebraska’s home schedule starts with NCAA qualifier and Missouri Valley Conference champion Drake and includes former Big 12 rival Kansas, along with Big Ten battles against 2018 NCAA qualifiers Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota and Iowa, as well as traditional powers Rutgers, Purdue and Michigan State and 2018 WNIT champion Indiana.
“We definitely have the potential to be a better basketball team than we were last season, but maybe not have the record to show for it,” Williams said. “Our road non-conference schedule is extremely difficult, and I think the Big Ten will be better from top to bottom. It is good that we have some experienced players who know what to expect.”
The cupboard is far from bare for the Big Red, as the Huskers return their top five scorers from 2017-18. However, Nebraska's 11-player roster is filled with five newcomers who will need to make the transition into significant contributors immediately to help the Huskers grow.
"Some of the biggest challenges we will face come from the fact that 45 percent of our roster is new," Williams said. "Our upperclassmen are doing a good job of educating our team on how to work cohesively and commit to playing for each other. Strong leadership and our ability to embrace and enhance our culture will be determining factors for this team's success. We have been talking a lot about finding small ways to keep raising the bar for our program."
Hannah Whitish earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore last season, while averaging team bests of 12.6 points and 4.7 assists per game. The 5-9 junior guard from Barneveld, Wis., added 4.0 rebounds per game and led the Huskers with 41 steals, while also connecting on a team-high 73 threes.
"Hannah made substantial strides from her freshman to sophomore season, and we are looking for her to make a similar leap as a junior," Williams said. "She has shown the confidence to make big plays for our team, and she has goals to improve in all aspects of her game."
Maddie Simon, a 6-2 senior from Lincoln Pius X, ranked second in scoring (10.1 ppg) and rebounding (5.3 rpg) in her first full season at forward as a junior. She will be key in providing leadership on and off the court.
"Maddie has naturally stepped into a leadership role for our program," Williams said. "She is extremely motivated to be a consistent presence for us and make this her best season as a Husker."
Taylor Kissinger, a 6-1 guard/forward from Minden, finished third on the team in scoring as a freshman with 10.0 points per game, while ranking second with 50 threes despite missing seven games with an injury.
"After a strong freshman season, Taylor's focus for the offseason was to attack her strength and conditioning to improve her agility, mobility and durability," Williams said. "We are extremely happy with the growth she has made both in the weight room and on the basketball court."
Kate Cain did more than just score, the 6-5 center from Middletown, N.Y., smashed Nebraska season (100) and game (11) block records to earn a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. The Big Ten All-Freshman selection averaged 9.9 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds.
"Kate has made visible strides this offseason and is playing with much more confidence," Williams said. "We are so excited to watch as Kate continues to tap into her abilities. We believe she can be a real weapon at both ends of the court in our program."
Junior Nicea Eliely, a 6-1 wing from Colorado Springs, Colo., ranked among NU’s top five in scoring (8.2 ppg), rebounding (4.0 rpg) and steals (37) despite an early season foot injury.
"Nicea has made obvious gains with her strength and conditioning and we think that will pay big dividends for her at both ends of the court," Williams said. "We will need Nicea to set the tone for us defensively with a physical and disciplined approach this year."
Junior Grace Mitchell rounds out a group of six returning Huskers. The 6-2 forward from Wellington, Kan., has appeared in 58 games with two starts for the Huskers over the past two seasons. She also provides an outstanding work ethic both on and off the court.
"Grace remains one of our most explosive athletes and has been showing a lot of confidence this offseason," Williams said. "She could be a valuable part in establishing ourselves as a better defensive and rebounding team."
Nebraska's group of five newcomers includes four freshmen that made up one of the top-20 recruiting classes in the nation, according to ESPN. That foursome added graduate transfer Kristian Hudson.
"This group of newcomers has the talent and work ethic to make an impact for our team immediately, and we will rely on them early," Williams said. "The quicker we can collectively help them transition to playing at this level and in our system, the better for our team's chances of success."
Hudson, a 5-5 senior point guard from Birmingham, Ala., could help the Husker attack be more effective at both ends of the court after scoring 1,076 points and dishing out 383 assists in her three seasons at Florida International. Hudson averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists as a junior.
“We are excited to add Kristian to our Husker family," Williams said. "Her experience coupled with her enthusiasm to help us raise the bar for our program make her the perfect fit.”
Ashtyn Veerbeek, a 6-2 forward from Sioux Center, Iowa, was a top-70 national recruit. The Iowa Class 2A Player of the Year at Western Christian High School averaged 25.8 points and 14.4 rebounds as a senior.
“She is a strong, yet agile athlete who is an extremely talented basketball player," Williams said. "She is a fierce competitor who simply knows how to win. She understands what it means to work hard, and we are looking forward to the growth she will make at Nebraska.”
A 5-9 guard from Minnesota, Sam Haiby was ranked among the top 125 players nationally at Moorhead High School. She scored more than 2,000 career points and averaged 25.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists as a senior.
“Sam has a great feel for the game. Her athleticism and explosiveness allow her to make plays for herself and others,” Williams said. “She has incredible potential on the defensive side of the basketball, as she has deceptive length and quickness. Her experience with her high school and summer programs have prepared her to play at the next level.”
Another Minnesota prep star, Kayla Mershon could provide key contributions inside at both ends of the court for Nebraska. The 6-3 forward was ranked among the top 135 players nationally. She is strong, runs well and is an outstanding worker with a high basketball IQ.
“Kayla Mershon has great length and a strong all-around skill-set, and we are excited about her versatility,” Williams said. “Kayla has shown some unique natural gifts, but she is also a tremendous worker and has a great attitude. She has played for a state championship high school team, and an extremely competitive summer team, and she is eager to compete at the highest level. We can’t wait to see all she will accomplish here in a Husker uniform.”
Indiana All-State selection Leigha Brown rounds out the Husker freshman class. The 6-1 wing out of DeKalb High School could provide the Huskers with explosiveness after averaging 28.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists as a senior, including a massive 53-point performance.
“We are so excited for all that Leigha will bring to our program. She is a versatile guard with good size and has the ability to score at all three levels,” Williams said. “She understands how to work and fits the culture we are establishing at Nebraska. Each time Leigha steps on the court, she plays like she has something to prove, and we will welcome that sense of urgency into our program.”
That sense of urgency will need to permeate the Husker program, as Nebraska opens its regular season against Drake (Nov. 7). The Bulldogs return five starters from a team that has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. After a second home game against USC Upstate (Nov. 11), the Huskers embark on a five-game road trip that includes Washington State (Nov. 16), NCAA Tournament qualifier Miami (Nov. 23), WNIT qualifier Radford (Nov. 25), NCAA Final Four participant Louisville (Nov. 29) and in-state rival Creighton (Dec. 2), which advanced to the NCAA second round in 2018.
The Big Red return home for a three-game stand against traditional rival Kansas (Dec. 5), before facing San Jose State (Dec. 8) and closing the stand against Denver (Dec. 15).
The Huskers close non-conference play at Arkansas (Dec. 18), before opening their 18-game Big Ten schedule against Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena (Dec. 28). Nebraska then faces back-to-back road tests at defending Big Ten champion Ohio State (Dec. 31) and NCAA qualifier Iowa (Jan. 3), before taking on Maryland at Pinnacle Bank Arena (Jan. 8).
Each of Nebraska's first four league foes played in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, while Michigan, Ohio State and Maryland all advanced to the second round. The game against the Terrapins begins a five-game stretch where the Huskers play four at Pinnacle Bank Arena, including Rutgers (Jan. 13), Minnesota (Jan. 20) and Northwestern (Jan. 24).
NU will step away from Lincoln to travel to Illinois (Jan. 17). Nebraska closes January with road games at Wisconsin (Jan. 27) and Purdue (Jan. 31), before returning to Lincoln to battle 2018 WNIT champion Indiana (Feb. 3).
The Huskers then complete three key Big Ten double plays at Michigan (Feb. 7), at home against Purdue (Feb. 10), and on the road at Maryland (Feb. 14), before battling Michigan State (Feb. 17) for the only time in 2019 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Nebraska wraps another double play at Northwestern (Feb. 21), before concluding the season series with Iowa on Senior Night at Pinnacle Bank Arena (Feb. 25).
The Huskers close the regular season at Penn State (March 2), before the Big Ten Tournament returns to Indianapolis (March 6-10). The 2019 NCAA Tournament Selection Show will be held on Monday, March 18, before the Big Dance begins for 64 teams on March 22.