LINCOLN — March is the month of second (and sometimes third) chances, and Nebraska is eager for another matchup with Minnesota.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to try to avenge a couple of losses during the season,” Husker coach Amy Williams said. “We feel like we can play better and we know we’re going to have to, and so I think it’s an incredible opportunity any time you get that opportunity to try again and knock somebody off.”
The No. 8 seed Huskers go head-to-head with No. 9 Minnesota at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. The game will be televised on BTN.
Point guard Sam Haiby, NU’s leading scorer, was recently named second-team All-Big Ten. She averages 17 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and leads the team in free-throw percentage, steals and assists.
“It’s the way she controls tempo and the leadership presence on the court,” Williams said, “and the confidence that she gives to our whole team and the rest of our roster when she’s out there.
“All of those things are really, really important factors to what she brings to our team, and is why I think she will be really important in our ability to be successful against Minnesota and our ability to be playing our best basketball and make a run down here in Indy.”
Kate Cain and Isabelle Bourne received All-Big Ten honorable mention, and Cain also made the all-defensive team for the third time (2018, 2020, 2021).
The Huskers (11-11, 9-10) lost their first go-around with Minnesota 76-71 on Jan. 19 and allowed 15 3-pointers, including three from Gadiva Hubbard in the fourth quarter. Hubbard, who averages 11 points per game, had 18 against NU and went 5 of 9 from beyond the arc.
Jasmine Powell, Minnesota’s leading scorer, went 3 of 8 on 3-point shots and tallied 15 points. Powell missed the second matchup because of a foot injury. It’s unknown if she’ll play Wednesday.
“They have a team full of fantastic 3-point shooters,” Williams said. “They just have a lot of different weapons from behind that arc, so that was a really big focus for us in the second game.”
While Nebraska forced Minnesota (8-12, 7-11) to go 5 of 13 from behind the arc in the second game, UM dominated in the paint with 32 points compared with NU’s 18. The Gophers won 73-63 on Feb. 24 in a close-fought game until free throws created distance in the final seconds.
In Indianapolis, the Huskers are looking for a consistent effort.
“We know that we’re going to have to play a well-balanced game and be able to be great in all areas,” Williams said. “We’re not going to be able to give up a huge game from behind the arc for them and still win. Even if we do take care of that, we’re not going to be able to give up a bunch of offensive rebounds and second-chance points and paint points and still win.”
In both matchups, Nebraska had only one of its top rebounders. Bourne, who averages 7.9 rebounds per game, sat out the first game because of an ankle injury, and Bella Cravens (7.5 rpg) had a foot injury during the second game.
Both Cravens and Bourne are available Wednesday, and Williams said she expects them to boost the Huskers in the rebounding department.
“They produce the most rebounds per minute and are good complements to each other in that area,” Williams said. “So that’s something that we’ve noticed, that when we do have both of those two players in the lineup, we seem to do much better taking care of that area of the game.”
Cravens played 13 minutes and grabbed six boards in her first game back from injury in the Huskers’ 83-75 loss to Iowa. Williams said the 6-foot-3 forward won’t be at 100% versus Minnesota but hopes she’ll continue to build on a good performance in NU’s last regular-season game.
The Golden Gophers are struggling with a limited roster due to injury and COVID-19. Sara Scalia, one of UM’s top scorers, has been battling injuries — along with Powell — and it is unclear if she will be available.
NU, which struggled with a limited roster for most of the season, will be at almost full strength Wednesday.
“We are excited to hopefully be able to have our full roster of healthy players that hopefully can keep us fresh throughout the game and help us sustain for 40 minutes and finish strong in the fourth quarter,” Williams said.
In both games against Minnesota, Nebraska had scoring droughts in the fourth quarter. On Jan. 19, NU went 3 of 21 from the floor in the fourth quarter. In the following matchup, UM finished on an 11-1 run.
“Our team really understands the importance of being able to put together four full quarters,” Williams said, “and particularly this time of year if you don’t, you most definitely are not going to survive and advance.”
Nebraska, which has five wins against Top 25 teams this season, knows it can play better against Minnesota.
“At this point,” Williams said, “it’s time to just go out and put all of our hard work and training, and trust the process, and have fun and leave it all on the court, and play our best basketball.”