By Tommy Rezac
LINCOLN – Nebraska (9-4) entered its non-conference finale on Friday, riding a five-game winning streak and hoping to deliver a sixth straight victory before the holiday break.
Washington State (7-5), now winners in six of its last seven games, led by as many 20 points in the first half, and weathered a late Nebraska run to win 73-61 on Friday afternoon in front of 4,404 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“Obviously, it’s not fun to lose on our home court, and we want to be able to protect home court, but some positive things out of today is we had an incredible fan base that came out on a Friday afternoon to support us,” Nebraska head coach Amy Williams said.
“This game, ultimately, will be good for our team. I thought Washington State came in and they were prepared, and they took some things away from us, and exposed some areas that we need to continue to improve, and I think that will be really good for us heading into Big Ten play.”
The Cougars’ ball pressure seemed to bother the Huskers, especially early on. Washington State scored on three Nebraska turnovers and took advantage of NU’s 2-of-12 shooting start from the floor to take a 23-12 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“Their pressure really bothered us,” Williams said. “So, being able to handle that a little bit better and understand that we’ve got to continue to play with a little bit of pace, and get ourselves in the right positions, even when we’re playing against teams that are going to pressure…they were really icing the ball screens very hard, and they denied our trail post and our transition game, and we didn’t handle that very well. They just pushed out of spacing with their defensive pressure.”
The Cougars led 47-27 with 8:37 to go in the 3rd quarter, but the Huskers went on a 9-0 scoring run to cut the deficit to 47-38 less than four minutes later.
Nebraska pulled to within 64-57 with 8:28 to play after a three-pointer from sophomore guard Hannah Whitish, but Washington State outscored the Huskers 9-4 for the remainder of the game.
Washington State was led in scoring by junior guard Alexys Swedlund and sophomore forward Borislava Hristova, who each had 16 points. Junior forward Louise Brown finished with 12.
The Cougars outscored the Huskers 38-24 in the paint.
“I think there was times when we didn’t rebound very well, and they were able to get offensive rebounds,” Whitish said. “We talk about offensive rebounds being energy pills. They help give you energy and momentum. It’s the opposite when (the opponent) gets them, and I think that took the wind out our sails a little bit.”
Washington State beat Nebraska on offensive boards 17-13 and outscored the Huskers 21-12 on second chance points.
Whitish finished with 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting. She also had six assists, three steals and three rebounds.
Even with her and senior guard Emily Wood making clutch shots, Nebraska’s run wasn’t ever sustainable enough to take a lead.
“I think there were some plays there where we really had to scratch and fight and claw so hard to kind of get back into the game after digging ourselves a hole,” Williams said. “Not trying to make excuses or anything, but I think that when you’ve played three games in eight days, and we’re playing a little bit shallow just with some kids still coming off of injuries, and we’re just not quite as deep and healthy as we want to be. We had a lot of people who were playing fatigued there in the second half.”
Wood certainly wasn’t feeling fatigued. She finished with a career-high 19 points on a career-high five three-pointers made.
The Salina, KS native was sharp all around, making 7-of-10 shots from the field. Even though it was a losing effort, it was a fun way for her to end the non-conference slate.
“I would tell anyone that I would rather score no points and win the game,” Wood said. “But, it was fun to be able to shoot it well, especially here at home.”
Friday’s loss was Nebraska’s second-largest margin of defeat this season, but Williams felt like it gave her team an example of how physical games can be once Big Ten play begins.
“We just really feel like today’s game can help prep us (for the Big Ten),” Williams said. “I really think that it had that feel. Just a competitive game that just felt kind of almost like a conference game. That’s going to be an eye opener for some of our young players to kind of get us ready and prepared for what’s coming.”
Freshman guard Taylor Kissinger was out for the sixth straight game with a knee injury.
The Minden, NE native had been averaging 14 points through the first seven contests. There’s still no exact timetable for her return.
Nebraska has six days off, and will stay at home when they take on Ohio State (11-2) on Thursday, Dec. 22. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.