LINCOLN — First, Ashtyn Veerbeek got hit in the eye. Face down on the court for a second in the first half, she got up, walked off and went to the bench.
But the second time the Husker freshman forward was nose-to-floor — after a collision with teammate Grace Mitchell — Veerbeek popped up, flashed a smile and stayed in the game.
“I don’t really know how I fell, but I was on the ground, and all of the sudden Grace was on top of me,” Veerbeek said after Nebraska’s 96-63 win over San Jose State. “It’s just what happens. It’s a physical sport.”
“She’s a tough cookie,” NU coach Amy Williams said admiringly of Veerbeek. “There’s no doubt about it.”
You can sign Veerbeek up for more physicality, too. She had her first career double-double in the victory — 14 points, 14 rebounds. She and sophomore center Kate Cain — 16 points and 17 rebounds — outrebounded the size- and strength-challenged Spartans 31-28 by themselves, literally reaching over their opponents’ heads to scoop or pry a ball away.
As a team, Nebraska (4-5) won the battle of the boards 56-28. That kind of margin usually leads to victory, even when a team can’t hit perimeter shots against a 2-3 zone, and NU couldn’t for a half. A 34-26 halftime lead was more about Nebraska’s mistakes and poor shooting than San Jose State’s stingy defense.
But Taylor Kissinger — Nebraska’s best 3-point shooter — hit a trio of treys early in the third quarter to help push NU’s lead to 19. Even as the Spartans (1-7) cut the lead back to 62-49 by the end of that quarter, they’d expended so much energy in a half-court trap that they ran out of gas and allowed Nebraska to score 34 points and shoot 71 percent in the fourth quarter.
So the Huskers go into a six-day break from games — it’s finals week on NU’s campus — with more pep than they had after a loss to rival Creighton last Sunday. Cain said Nebraska players took that loss hard and were sick of letting winnable games elude their grasp.
NU has crashed the boards hard since then — 64 rebounds against Kansas and 56 against San Jose State. Veerbeek had 11 against the Jayhawks and 14 on Saturday.
“She’s always diving on loose balls,” said freshman Leigha Brown, who scored a career-high 18 points.
“You can tell she used to play volleyball because sometimes she’ll be rolling and getting up like that,” said Cain, explaining how volleyball players dig balls just off the floor.
Veerbeek comes from a girls volleyball/basketball powerhouse at Hull (Iowa) Western Christian High School, which has produced two All-America NU volleyball players in Lisa Reitsma and Nancy Meendering. Veerbeek’s mom, Tammi, is Western Christian’s volleyball coach. When Ashtyn celebrates on the floor after making a key play, her fist pump looks a lot like the textbook fire of a volleyball player after a big kill.
“I love that about Ashtyn,” Williams said. “She’s a winner who comes from a winning program. She’s won state championships in high school in basketball and volleyball. She’s a very competitive player and competitive spirit, and that’s something we’re never going to try to diminish in her.”
She’s learned from Cain, a few inches taller and one year wiser, about how to be creative around the basket so the ball doesn’t get stuffed back in her face. Cain has been pushed in practice, too. On Saturday, Cain didn’t find her stride until Veerbeek had grabbed seven rebounds in a sluggish first quarter.
“They’re both very, very dangerous post players,” Williams said.
By the second half, Cain and Veerbeek were getting open looks at the basket and were finding other Huskers equally open. San Jose State’s defense busted as Nebraska started the fourth quarter on an 11-0 run.
That left Williams and players all smiles after the game. They won back-to-back games for the first time this season.
“I guess they call it a streak when you get a couple in a row,” Williams quipped.
Veerbeek said she’d be clued into the Husker volleyball match later in the day. Her mom, in town for the basketball game, would be watching with her.
“I love watching the Huskers,” Veerbeek said. “I’m excited.”