By Randy York, The N-Sider
Sunday was a breakthrough day for Nebraska women’s basketball freshmen guards Hannah Whitish (5-9, Barneveld, Wis.) and Nicea Eliely (6-1, Colorado Springs, Colo.) Both saw dreams come true that neither even knew they had.
Stopping an eight-game losing streak, the Huskers (6-20 overall, 2-12 in Big Ten) delivered a 67-64 upset win over an Indiana team (18-9 overall and 8-6 in Big Ten) that would have finished the afternoon in sole possession of fourth place in the conference standings.
How did the Huskers manufacture such a major upset against a Hoosier team with its sights set firmly on making the NCAA Tournament?
Whitish and Eliely helped light the torch for this feel-good story that reflects their incremental improvement, exponential growth and analytical focus.
Despite being freshman backcourt starters, they devotedly stuck with the process” – a season-long team mantra under Nebraska head coach Amy Williams and Husker assistants Tom Goehle, Chuck Love and Tandem Mays.
Whitish, Eliely Numbers Clearly Increasing During Last Half of Big Ten Play
Hannah’s and Nicea’s numbers, coupled with their efficiency and speed of play, are clearly increasing during the last half of Big Ten play. Their steady climb could even allow them to become the first pair of Husker freshmen to both average better than 7.0 points per game since Angie Miller (14.6 ppg) and Stacy Imming (9.9 ppg) in 1983-84.
“This is a really fun win for our team,” Williams said, pointing out how important it was to get a win instead of experience a close loss at this point of the season.
“We’ve been close a couple times,” Williams said. “We had that overtime game with Minnesota. You just kind of need to see that check mark in the win column in order to validate what we’ve trying to preach and what they’ve been buying into.”
The relief provided validation and expectation. “Our players and others have talked to us about Indiana playing for a chance to be a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament,” Williams said. “What we’re playing for is our own ability to continue to make progress with our program and find things to continue to build on. It was a really good feeling to get that win and that final ball bounce off, so our players can see that and validate some of the things we’ve been working on.
Williams Feels Happy and Relieved for Husker Players' Focus, Positivity
“It just feels good,” Williams said. “I feel very excited for our players that they’ve continued to come and work hard and stay focused and stay positive and see that pay off for us. I feel happy and I feel relief for them.”
A self-described gym rat, who played in four state high school championship games in Wisconsin, Whitish was at her best in the final 90 seconds of Nebraska’s win over Indiana.
“She was big time,” Williams said, adding that her last 3-point shot was one she probably would turn down nine times out of 10. She wanted that shot and was shot ready. We’ve been talking to her about being our best three-point shooter, and we need her not to turn down open shots.”
The result matched the green light in her head. “Hannah was ready and she stepped up and made a huge play at a big time,” Williams said. “I just thought she really played with confidence and poise and I was really proud of her.”
Shepard Should Benefit from Both Guards' Late-Season Performances
Before we share the strategic impact of Whitish’s and Eliely’s late-season break-through performances, we should mention why their improvement and development are so critical for another benefactor – sophomore Jessica Shepard, the 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Nebraska senior associate communications director Jeff Griesch, in his 16th season as a radio color commentator for Nebraska women’s basketball, told me the Huskers are the only Big Ten team whose top three players are freshmen and sophomores.
Shepard is averaging 18.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game, leading the Huskers in both categories. Shepard has 12 double-doubles and has produced double figures in 13 of Nebraska’s14 Big Ten games this seasons (including 6 double-doubles).
To complement those stellar statistics, check out the steady climbs that Whitish and Eliely have quietly made in their first years as Huskers.
Hannah Whitish (5-9, Guard, Barneveld, Wis. – Barneveld HS)
Earned her first Big Ten Freshman-of-the-Week award on Monday, Feb. 20 after helping lead the Huskers to a 67-64 win over Indiana at Pinnacle Bank Arena
Whitish scored a career-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-6 three-pointers. She also had six rebounds, four assists and two steals to out-duel first-team All-Big Ten guard Tyra Buss from Indiana
Whitish has started all 14 Big Ten games for the Big Red and has produced double figures 8 times in those 14 starts after managing double figures twice in non-conference play
Whitish leads the Huskers with 45 three-pointers this season and her next three will tie her with fellow Wisconsin High School Player of the Year, All-American and two-time WNBA All-Star Anna DeForge for third in three-pointers made among freshmen all-time at Nebraska. DeForge hit 46 as a freshman in 1994-95.
Over the last five games, Whitish has hit 13-of-29 threes (.448)
Over the last five games, Whitish has 26 assists (5.2 apg)
Whitish’s last five games, 11.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.2 apg, 1.4 spg
Whitish in Big Ten play, 10.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.4 spg
Whitish on season, 8.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 spg
Nicea Eliely (6-1, Guard, Colorado Springs, Colo. – Rampart HS)
Back-to-back 13-point performances against No. 12 Ohio State and Indiana (9-of-16 FG, 3-of-4 3FG) combined in two games
Started all 26 games for the Huskers this season
Last three games, 12.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.3 spg (14-of-23 FG, .609)
Season, 8.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.6 spg (leads team)
Leads Huskers with 42 steals this season – she will be the first Husker freshman to lead Nebraska in steals since 2000-01 and just the third Husker freshman to do it since 1990-91
Her .458 FG percentage leads the Huskers this season
Eliely ranks second on the team with her .357 3FG percent (20-56), trailing only Whitish (45-118, .381). She also ranks second on the team in assists (63) trailing only Whitish (71)
Whitish’s and Eliely's Statistics Provide Preview for B1G Part of the Puzzle
The joint emergence of Whitish and Eliely in the final chapter of their freshmen seasons begs an interesting question – can the Huskers continue to improve the rest of this season and move into the top half of the Big Ten standings next year?
Off-season development and strong recruiting are two parts of that equation, but here’s a significant part already in motion – Whitish’s steady improvement capped by Sunday’s highest point total of the season – 18 points, 70-percent field goal shooting (7-10), six rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“I love it,” Nebraska senior center Allie Havers said. “I wish I had three more years with Hannah. I’m excited because I’m going to come back and watch Nicea and the other freshmen, too.”
Hannah Whitish and Nicea Eliely are indeed important pieces to the Nebraska women’s basketball puzzle and will be for three more years. Their growth will be pivotal for Shepard the rest of this season, during the off-season and when they return for the 2017-18 season.
One thing is certain. It’s easy to give up on a process, especially if you’re two first-year freshman starters who have experienced more losses than they envisioned. It is also easy to lose heart. Give Williams, her coaching staff and a young team credit. Both freshmen are gaining confidence week by week and are already determined to stick to the process, so they can spur hope for all Husker players, coaches and fans.
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