By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Nebraska, playing its final home women’s basketball game of the season, surrendered a 12-0 run in the first quarter.
The Huskers fell behind by 14 points in the second quarter.
This marked all-too familiar territory for a young team in transition that many times this season, at this point in the game, would simply lose control.
Sunday proved different.
Nebraska won, 76-74 in overtime over Michigan State, and unlike in its two other Big Ten Conference victories this season, had to dig deep and rally from a double-digit deficit.
“It’s just a mentality that we weren’t going to lose this game,” Nebraska senior forward Allie Havers said. “This was a game to win, and we were going to do it. All 14 of us, whether anybody played or not, that was our mentality.”
Personally, Havers played with a couple of motivating factors.
One, she’s from Mattawan, Michigan. Two, Sunday was Senior Day for Havers and Canadian guard Esther Ramacieri.
“A win’s a win, especially the way our season’s been going,” Havers said, “but having that as the end of my (home) career, a win against Michigan State, that’s icing on the cake.”
Havers also remembers the last time these Huskers played Michigan State, on Jan. 7 in East Lansing. The Spartans roughed up Nebraska for a 93-73 victory.
“The last time we played them, it was a pretty physical game,” Havers said. “It’s our home court, we want to protect it, it’s our last game here. We knew we were going to come out with a dub. We had that mentality.”
Sophomore forward Jessica Shepard led Nebraska with a season-high 32 points and 11 rebounds, and freshman guard Hannah Whitish had 24 points, including two crucial three-pointers to open overtime and give Nebraska the lead for good.
Havers finished with eight points and seven rebounds, and contributed with a couple of key plays down the stretch of regulation and in overtime.
First, Havers slipped unnoticed to the basket and scored an easy layup off an assist from Whitish for a 63-62 lead with 47 seconds remaining in regulation. That marked Nebraska’s first lead since midway through the first quarter, before Michigan State (19-10, 9-7 Big Ten) began its run.
The Huskers had a 65-62 lead after two Shepard free throws, but another senior, this one on Michigan State’s team, tried saving the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament hopes with a spectacular play.
With the 6-foot-5 Havers hovering in front of Tori Jankoska, the 5-8 guard somehow stepped around Havers’ big frame and lofted a three-point shot from the left corner that hit the backboard and fell through the net with 20.3 seconds to play, forcing overtime.
“She’s a great player,” Havers said of Jankoska, who led the Spartans with 29 points. “I played against her for four years, and she’s just a hands-down great player, and that was an awesome shot. Nothing you can do with that.”
Whitish’s three-pointers gave Nebraska momentum in overtime, and the Huskers never surrendered the lead. The margin was two when Havers stood straight up in the post and forced a missed shot by Jenna Allen with 5 seconds to play, a shot that Shepard rebounded, sending the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd into shouts of celebration.
“I’m just thrilled for her,” first-year Nebraska coach Amy Williams said of Havers. “She had a couple huge baskets down the stretch late in our win over Indiana, and then to do the same thing here today and make some really big plays, it was great to see that from a senior.”
Williams said Havers and Ramacieri, who logged 3 minutes on Senior Day, helped define the personality of a team that withstood some turbulent times.
“They always have stayed upbeat through all of the negative and the losses we’ve gone through,” Williams said. “It’d be very easy for seniors to kind of have a different attitude, and they have stayed positive.”
Nebraska (7-21, 3-13) collected its second consecutive home victory over a 19-win team, a sign of sure progress for a team and program in transition. The Huskers will now try to take this momentum into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, where No. 13 seed Nebraska will play No. 12 seed Illinois in the play-in round on Wednesday.
“We want to do everything we can to be playing our best basketball down the stretch when we head into the conference tournament,” Williams said. “That’s something that has been a focus for us, and they’re really buying into that and trying to find ways to improve. We’re figuring things out a little bit.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.