LINCOLN — In the midst of a 7-22 season — the worst record in school history — the Nebraska women’s team was missing a lot of things last season.
A defensive stopper. Consistent outside shooting. Frontcourt depth. Guard experience. There was also something smaller, hidden, that was absent.
Pep. Just plain ol’ pep.
The past two seasons of basketball — Amy Williams’ first year and the last controversial year of the Connie Yori era — looked like a grind. The body language and exasperated facial expressions on the court gave it away — losing tends to do that — while the tepid answers in interviews did, too.
“They take themselves very, very seriously, which is good, in that they have a very driven approach to what they’re doing, but we’ve worked hard to lighten the mood,” Williams said in October.
Williams has a helper in her cause. Though transfer point guard Bria Stallworth may not be one of NU’s leading scorers this season, she has some contagious energy. A joke. A line. An offhand comment. An impromptu dance. Pep.
“You’ve got to have that one player who keeps the mood light, crack a joke, getting everybody laughing, and that’s Bria,” Williams said. “She has some personality. She’s a hoot. And it’s something we will really use in the climate of the locker room.”
At 5-foot-6, Stallworth will be one of the shortest players on the floor. The Chicago native always has been, which is why she has worked on her floating jumper through her career. In her one season at Massachusetts, it all looked pretty good: She averaged 13.1 points and 3.8 assists per game.
“People are always bigger and faster, so I just have to be a little smarter,” Stallworth said. “That’s always what I’ve been told. Coaches. My dad.”
Stallworth’s coach at UMass was fired, and Stallworth was on the move. She picked Nebraska.
As did Eastern Michigan guard transfer Janay Morton, who’s roommates with Stallworth and also sat out last season. With Stallworth and Morton now available, Nebraska goes from a depth-challenged backcourt to a pretty deep one.
Stallworth will share time with Hannah Whitish at the point. Emily Wood, a glue-and-hustle player, can play the point, too.
Morton can play a wing, as can Nicea Eliely, Jasmine Cincore, Maddie Simon, Grace Mitchell and Taylor Kissinger, the five-star recruit from Minden whose range starts, Williams joked, when she enters the gym.
Women’s basketball is a guard’s game. Nebraska suddenly has some firepower in a Big Ten where Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan are league favorites. In a scheduling coup, NU gets all three of those teams at Pinnacle Bank Arena and plays only Maryland on the road.
The Huskers weren’t competitive with any of those teams last season. Michigan especially thumped Nebraska by 33 and 28 points, respectively.
The defense was a main culprit. The Huskers allowed opponents 80.4 points and 45-percent shooting in Big Ten play. They struggled to stop point guards from doing whatever they pleased.
Part of Stallworth’s role with the Huskers will be a “pirate” who defends the point guard and harasses her outside the 3-point line.
In Yori’s system, that player was called “a hound.” One of Yori’s last good hounds was Tear’a Laudermill, who never missed an NCAA tournament in her four years. Laudermill, who played with passion on the court and cracked up teammates off the court, had a similar vibe to Stallworth.
“I’ve been told that!” Stallworth said. “I actually have her old locker.”
Stallworth came off the bench in Nebraska’s 64-62 scrimmage loss at Iowa State. Whitish — who hit 41 percent of her 3-pointers in Big Ten play last season — started at point and scored 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
True to her reputation, Kissinger launched 11 3-pointers, making three. One bugaboo from last season — poor foul shooting — was again an issue at ISU. NU hit 15 of 28 free throws.
But the defense was stingier. NU had six steals and seven blocks, including four from true freshman post Kate Cain, a late signee who got eight rebounds in 11 minutes. Forward Rachel Blackburn, who also logged 11 minutes, is coming off major knee surgery that caused her to miss last season. Blackburn and Cain, along with Darrien Washington, make up Nebraska’s relatively small group of true post players. The 2016-17 team’s best player and unofficial spokeswoman, center Jessica Shepard, left the team and transferred to Notre Dame, where a rare NCAA waiver will allow her to play immediately.
Shepard’s presence both helped and hurt the Husker offense. Without her, look for the offense to be more open and flowing, instead of anchored to the post. The Huskers lacked slashers and penetrators last season, so Stallworth and Eliely — who missed the scrimmage as she comes back from an injury — may be the key players getting NU to the rim and the foul line.
Stallworth’s game has some passing pizazz, too.
“I’ve always been a pass-first point guard,” she said. “I’m always looking to kick it.”