The Nebraska women’s basketball team (20-9, 11-5 Big Ten) is set to face either No. 6 seed Michigan (21-8, 10-6) or No. 11 seed Penn State (16-14, 6-10) in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Michigan and Penn State will play at roughly 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The Huskers will face the winner on Friday at the same time.
When it comes to the NCAA tournament, Nebraska is still on the outside looking in, in terms of RPI. It was 64 as of noon on Thursday.
Big Ten Coach of the Year Amy Williams isn’t concerned with that right now.
“There’s a lot of parody in our league,” Williams said. “A lot of really good teams, really good players, and we feel like we can really play with everybody. We’re just excited and heading down there to try and cut down nets.”
Cutting nets would obviously give Nebraska an automatic bid to the Big Dance. Even if that doesn’t happen, Williams still holds the belief that Nebraska has met the criteria.
“We were not really healthy until conference play hit,” Williams said. “Once we started to really put things together, we’ve had some really key wins. We were able to go on the road and win, which is a really difficult thing to do.”
Nebraska was without sophomore Nicea Eliely for the first three games (ankle). Senior Janay Morton missed eight non-conference games (foot). Junior forward Maddie Simon missed four games in November (ankle). Kissinger sat out six games in December (knee).
Despite this attrition, Nebraska still managed to post a 9-2 record in true road games this season, including a 10-3 mark away from Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Going into another game away from Lincoln, freshman Taylor Kissinger and junior Darrien Washington are still day-to-day with shoulder injuries, while sophomore Bria Stallworth is still recovering from an ankle.
It’s unknown if any of those three will be able to play, but Williams is still glad to be playing on Friday this year as opposed to last year’s Wednesday play-in with Illinois.
“Last year, we were playing in the very first game on the very first day,” Williams said. “We were in and out. No one on our team got much of a feel for the tournament before it was already time for us to go home. But I think this year, our players are playing with a little bit more confidence and they have expectations to win.”
On top of winning back-to-back regular season conference titles in 2015 and 2016, Williams also won a Summit League tournament title with South Dakota back in 2014, which happens to be the last time Nebraska won the Big Ten bracket.
In order to win this year, Williams needs a balanced attack from the entire roster.
“The key to playing well (in tournaments) is we need contributions from everybody, but you have to do all of the little things right,” Williams said. “Set great screens for execution. You have to rebound. Take care of being disciplined on box-outs every time. You just can’t have those empty plays where you just forget to kind of keep your focus.”
Someone who’s consistently taken care of those little things this year is Maddie Simon, who’s having the best season of her Nebraska career thus far.
The Lincoln Pius X alum has scored in double figures 14 times this year. Nebraska is 12-2 in those games. In games where Simon sat out or scored less than 10, NU is 8-7.
“It’s very easy to point to the games where Maddie either didn’t play because of injury, or Maddie wasn’t contributing as much as she normally does,” Williams said. “I think she understands that’s something she needs to bring in order for our team to be successful.”
Before the season began, Simon changed positions from point guard to power forward to add experience and depth to the position.
The only other two fowards on the roster are sophomore Rachel Blackburn, who missed all of 2016-17 with a knee injury, and junior Darrien Washington, who missed six of NU’s last seven games last year with a knee injury. Washington also has only one career start.
Simon had 19 total starts through her first two seasons. With the help of assistant coach Chuck Love, the transformation from guard to forward has paid dividends.
“Coach Love has done an amazing job as a position coach with Maddie all year,” Williams said. “Just building confidence in her and developing a score-first mentality. (She has) size and athleticism. A lot of things in our system to be able to play from that high post quite a bit and make some decisions in there and take mismatches down to the block, I just think it’s a good setup with her skill set.”
Simon admits it was a little “scary” at first making such a big change as a career point guard, but the longer it went on, the more the results started to show.
“As the season’s gone on, I’ve been able to find my spots and find ways to get involved,” Simon said. “Where my teammates were able to find each other. Just kind of getting into a flow of where we’re going to find our open shots, what the driving lanes are, where the open looks are going to come from.”
Simon remembers watching the last time Nebraska won the conference tournament. She was a junior in high school.
As a junior in college, she’d love to help this team make their own mark on program history.
“Ever since I’ve played here, I look up that banner and it says ‘2014 Big Ten Championship,'” Simon said. “It’s been something I’ve been wanting to add to the wall. Our last (NCAA tournament appearance) says 2015 and down there is the NIT (banner from 2016), so I think it’s definitely something we look at as motivation to want to stick our name on that wall.”
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.