BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Even with a missing starter and shorter bench, the Big Ten’s best squad had just enough in the tank to hold off the Nebraska women Thursday night.
Meanwhile, the Huskers’ strong push against a top-10 team came a little too late.
Using six players and fighting off second-half fatigue, No. 6 Indiana beat the Huskers 72-65 in Assembly Hall. It was IU’s 14th straight Big Ten regular-season win and sixth straight over Nebraska, which has struggled for many seasons against the Hoosiers’ combination of quickness and tenacity.
Still, NU’s chances seemed better at tipoff when BTN announced that Mackenzie Holmes, IU’s leading scorer and rebounder, would miss the game with a knee injury. Early, when Nebraska took a 10-7 lead, Holmes’ absence appeared significant.
Until Indiana’s seasoned group of starters took over, particularly Grace Berger (22 points), Nicole Cardano-Hillary (13 points and six rebounds) and Aleksa Gulbe (17). They helped IU seize control midway through the second quarter with a 13-4 run that led to a 44-31 halftime lead. The Hoosiers still led by 14 heading into the fourth quarter.
That’s when Nebraska (13-3, 2-3 Big Ten) started its fourth-quarter push, cutting IU’s lead to five on a basket by Alexis Markowski — who finished with team-high 17 points and seven rebounds — with 38 seconds left and three after two Allison Weidner free throws with 24.3 seconds left. But Indiana (13-2, 5-0) had a big enough lead to burn and hit just enough shots, getting two crucial fourth-quarter 3-pointers — and couple of free throws — from reserve Chloe Moore-McNeil to clinch the victory.
“We can’t wait until the fourth quarter to play and to play defense and guard,” coach Amy Williams said. “We competed. We fought, we scratched, we put ourselves in a position to be back in the ballgame. I’m pleased with that.
“But in this league, it’s so brutally competitive, you’re going to have to play for 40 minutes. And we did not do that.”
The Huskers committed 19 turnovers — many on entry passes — and had nine assists. NU was led by Markowski and guard Jaz Shelley, who had 15 points and nine rebounds.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Huskers also lost guard Sam Haiby to an injured right shoulder, which was wrapped in ice as she sat on the bench. Williams said she didn’t know the details of how Haiby got hurt. BTN showed Haiby’s shoulder getting wrenched while she was going for a loose ball.
NU was already missing starting forward Bella Cravens for a third straight game.
Holmes is the higher-profile player, though, and Nebraska had two offensive rebounds — and a basket — on its first possession of the game. NU then attempted to exploit Holmes’ absence early and often with entry passes to posts Markowski, Issie Bourne and Ani Stewart.
It didn’t work very well against IU’s post-fronting defense. The Huskers, unable to drive past IU defenders, then settled for long 3-pointers, making 3 of 12 in the first half.
“Indiana did a nice job — in really the first three quarters — of backing off, sagging off, showing help to Markowski, throwing some double teams at her away from the players on our team who were not making shots on the perimeter,” Williams said.
Still, NU hung in for most of the first half, trailing 31-27 with 4:57 left before the Hoosiers finished on a 13-4 run. IU guards Berger, Cardano-Hillary and Ali Patberg routinely zipped past defenders for layups or kick-out passes when the Huskers would rotate to help.
Williams said Nebraska’s defense did not adjust well to Holmes’ absence and a shift in the scouting report. Much like a 72-69 loss at Michigan State, when the Spartans had a few players out because of COVID-19, NU prepared for a two-post offense and got four guards instead.
“We’re going have to figure out our ability to adjust a little better than we have,” Williams said.
Despite playing 11 to Indiana’s six, Nebraska often seemed a step behind on the defensive end and limited in its ability to drive the ball downhill on offense. NU shot 39.4% in the first half compared to Indiana’s 54.5% from the floor.
Nebraska got a better defensive effort in the third quarter but struggled on offense, committing more turnovers (six) and fouls (six) than made shots (three). The Huskers had a four-minute scoring drought halfway through the quarter.
NU trailed 57-43 at the end of the third quarter but came alive when Markowski scored 11 of her 17 points in the fourth quarter against Indiana’s tired, foul-ridden posts.
“Lex worked hard in there to get those paint touches,” Williams said. “We were thinking of ways to put people in positions where they couldn’t double quite so easy.”