LINCOLN — A hockey game broke out at Pinnacle Bank Arena Sunday. It looked like a line change, anyway.
Two minutes into the second half of a 62-56 loss to Rutgers, Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams pulled four of her starters, leaving in only junior guard Hannah Whitish. The Scarlet Knights had quickly pushed an eight-point halftime lead to 12, and Williams has four freshmen who can — and did on Sunday — outplay their starting counterparts.
Rutgers’ 41-29 lead shrank to three with a 9-0 Nebraska run. Freshmen scored all the points, too.
NU eventually climbed the hill — tying the game at 52 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter — before failing to close out the Scarlet Knights, who remained undefeated in league play. Nebraska missed free throws, “made a few bad decisions” and took “questionable” shots, according to Williams, during a six-minute scoring drought down the stretch.
So, naturally, there was talk of getting over the hump, which, for a team that is 7-9 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten, is not a small thing.
But Nebraska hasn’t led a league game in nearly 97 minutes. In home losses to Maryland and Rutgers, NU didn’t lead once, trailing 5-0 out of the first-quarter gate to the Terrapins and 7-1 to the Scarlet Knights. Even Williams couldn’t ignore that 16 of the Huskers’ 19 turnovers on Sunday were made by starters. Her actions of pulling four of them, two minutes into the second half, sent a message, too.
“We’re just trying to play players who are going to give us sparks and play hard, that are going to work for defensive stops, that are going to do the things we need to do to have success out there on the court,” Williams said.
Has she considered changing the starting lineup? Aside from a single game, in which Whitish came off the bench due to a minor ailment, she’s used the same one.
“If we do make a decision to change a starting lineup here or there, it really doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “Because what matters that we’re going to play everyone on our roster, pretty much. Whatever minutes those are — whether it’s the first five minutes of the game, if it’s the next five minutes, if it’s a couple minutes into the third quarter, whatever — we need everybody to be ready to go and contribute.”
On Sunday, a spirited crowd of 4,222 saw the best NU minutes largely come from the bench, which outscored the starters 34-22. Freshman forward Leigha Brown — Nebraska’s leading scorer in Big Ten play — had 18. In both halves, it was Brown who offered a scoring spark.
The player she sometimes replaces in the lineup, sophomore Taylor Kissinger, said the Huskers “were off from the beginning.”
“It started in shootaround,” Kissinger said. She talked of “trusting” teammates and NU not getting bogged down in 1-on-1 play.
The Minden native is no longer a secret to Big Ten opponents. She’s tops in the league in 3-point shooting percentage — after making 3 of 5 Sunday, Kissinger improved to 49.3 percent from beyond the arc — constantly hears “shooter, shooter, shooter” as she runs the floor, looking for open space. She has a green light when she’s open, and her final trifecta tied the game at 52. She’d just scored eight of her 11 points in a span of 2:39.
She didn’t attempt another shot. She was taken out at the 4:10 mark and didn’t return until there were 21 seconds left and Rutgers had thoroughly smothered NU’s offense and scored seven points of its own.
The back half of the fourth quarter was a microcosm of Nebraska’s season-long struggles. Williams has yet to find a definitive five that closes out games. NU finds its defense but loses its offense. Or the Huskers score it well but have defensive lapses like Sunday’s first quarter, when Rutgers (13-3, 5-0) hit five 3-pointers against Nebraska’s zone.
Nebraska’s roster appears, on paper, more talented than last season’s bunch that went to the NCAA tournament. But the parts haven’t made a great sum.
“We need more consistency, top to bottom, from our lineup,” Williams said. “Just consistency. Right now, it’s been ‘a good game here, a good game here, a good game here,’ and we haven’t had the consistency that we need.”
Players are being hard on themselves, Williams said. She’s OK with that.
“We want them to be a little bit more concerned,” Williams said. “We lose two games in a row at home, and we don’t take that lightly. They’re trying to find answers, they’re trying give a little bit more. They want more.”