LINCOLN — Don’t even think about pumping the brakes at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Monday night.
A shot at the Big Ten title is on the line for the Nebraska women’s basketball team, and the front-runner the Huskers hope to catch — two-time defending champ Penn State — pays its annual visit.
The Nittany Lions, a game-and-a-half ahead of NU in the league standings, will try to drop as many points as possible in front of what could be Nebraska’s largest crowd of the season and an ESPN2 audience.
The Huskers would know. In their last three games against Penn State — all losses, two at home — they’ve given up an average of 85 points.
PSU is second in the league in scoring this year. First in offensive rebounds. First in size. First in intimidation.
“Biggest team we’ve played all year — an enormous team,” NU coach Connie Yori said Sunday on the Husker Sports Network.
Penn State’s starters include 6-foot-5 center Tori Waldner and two 6-3 forwards in Talia East and Ariel Edwards. There are four players 6-2 or taller coming off the bench, too.
“That could almost be a men’s team, in some cases,” Yori said. “At least small college men’s team. We really have some matchup issues.”
Good thing No. 17 Nebraska has settled into its new digs. The Huskers (20-5 overall, 10-3 Big Ten) have averaged 79.8 points in their last five home games. They’ve shot 47 percent from the floor.
“We’re getting used to shooting there and playing there,” forward Jordan Hooper said recently. Hooper said she’d always view the Bob Devaney Sports Center as “home” — she dominated the Nebraska High School State Tournament in that building and played three seasons for the Huskers there — but she’s acclimated to the change in perspective at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraska’s also grown accustomed to running its offense — a Princeton-style attack known as “slice” — over the past two years. Yori and offensive coordinator Dayna Finch installed it before last season after watching the Huskers stagnate with a motion offense during their first Big Ten season.
The “slice” played a key role in the Huskers’ Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament, especially in an upset win over Texas A&M. This year, Finch said, the offense has improved even more.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations,” Finch said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The Huskers’ half-court offense is more efficient, Finch said. Passing is an underrated skill, she said, and Nebraska passes it crisply. And Finch said sophomore Rachel Theriot is adept at running the offense.
“She’s by far one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” Finch said.
Theriot plays at a measured pace that’s hard to speed up — which Penn State (21-5 and 12-2) likely will try to do. Further, her ability to dribble around screens, curl to the free throw line and hit running jumpers is hard for opposing centers affixed under the basket to defend. If a defender comes out, Nebraska can cut behind the help for a layup. If the defender stays put, Theriot’s shown the ability to float the ball above outstretched hands.
The Huskers also have enough scoring weapons to keep a defense honest. NU’s post players — Hooper and Emily Cady — both shoot 3-pointers well, so Penn State’s big posts will have defend out on the floor.
“We’re tough to guard,” Finch said. “You can’t center on one or two people. It’s neat to see our growth.”