The Big Ten Conference women’s basketball tournament goes for five days. Last year, Nebraska was headed home just two hours into the tournament, getting knocked out in a No. 12 seed vs. No. 13 game in the very first game of the tournament.
In another sign of the Huskers’ major turnaround from last season, that’s not happening this year.
With a 59-51 victory against Penn State on Thursday, the Huskers have clinched getting one of the top-three seeds in the tournament, which means a two-round bye and a guaranteed spot in the quarterfinals. That’s big for a team that may need to make it to the semifinals to improve its chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskers have one more game in the regular season, on Sunday at No. 13-ranked Maryland, which suffered another surprising loss against Michigan on Thursday. Nebraska reached the 20-win mark on Thursday, improving to 20-8 and 11-4 in the Big Ten.
NU put itself in position for a top-three Big Ten seed by winning eight of nine games during a stretch in January and February. Conference road wins are tough to get, but the Huskers have gone 6-1 in Big Ten road games.
“We’ve accomplished so much,” said Husker junior forward Maddie Simon of the conference season. “I’m just so proud of this team for how hard we’ve worked and how well we’ve played together. We’ve stayed together as a team and improved over the season and it’s just been fun. It’s been great, and I can’t think of a better way to send out our seniors tonight.”
This could be the Huskers’ last home game if Nebraska doesn’t play in the WNIT. The Huskers are 10-6 at home.
On Thursday freshman center Kate Cain scored 14 points and had a season-high 20 rebounds, which is tied for sixth-most in a game in program history.
“It was a great performance for Kate,” said NU coach Amy Williams. “I thought her and (Taylor Kissinger) both showed a desire to get a little more physical and go down in there and grind out some rebounds.”
Kissinger had eight points and seven rebounds. Simon scored 16 points, including seven in the second quarter, and had six rebounds. Hannah Whitish and Janay Morton added nine points apiece.
Nebraska’s lead reached 12 points in the second half as the Huskers continued to dominate in the paint. For the game Nebraska dominated Penn State on rebounding 60-31, making it the ninth-best rebounding game in program history and a season-best total. NU outscored Penn State 34-20 in the paint.
Amy Williams video. Good thing for all those rebounds: pic.twitter.com/S2oeVeSX33— Brent Wagner (@LJSSportsWagner) February 23, 2018
Simon said a big rebounding game like that starts in the days before the game in practice.
“I saw some of our practice players after the game and a lot of those guys are big and strong and over 6-feet tall, so we have to work really hard in practice against them,” Simon said. “They push us, so I think that’s where it starts is just having that rebounding mentality in practice and it carried over to tonight. Sixty rebounds, that was awesome.”
Those rebounds were lifesavers as the Huskers missed 41 field goal attempts in the game, and including shooting just 2-of-20 on three-pointers.
Whitish had eight rebounds, and Jasmine Cincore had seven.
Amari Carter led Penn State (15-13, 6-9 Big Ten) with 14 points.
Penn State missed 46 field goals. But the Huskers were 19-of-25 on free throws, scoring eight more points from the line than Penn State did.
Williams said it was a good thing the Huskers did such a good job rebounding.
“It wasn’t our best offensive performance, but I thought defensively we were locked into our game plan and we found ways to rebound, and that’s why we secured a win,” she said.