LINCOLN — After one of their ugliest losses in years, the Nebraska women took advantage of their perfect chance to knock off a ranked team.
In Sunday’s 73-66 win over No. 17 Michigan State, the Huskers found quickly what eluded them in a 110-73 loss at Minnesota.
A pulse on defense.
NU left the sieve at home. It brought saltiness instead.
“It’s amazing what happens when you play hard — it gives you a chance to win,” Nebraska coach Connie Yori said. “We did not play very hard in Minnesota, but we came back and played with a lot of passion and energy.”
A season-high, juiced crowd of 8,338 at Pinnacle Bank Arena helped. The Valentine’s Day-themed fans were in it from the moment NU sophomore Jasmine Cincore hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first quarter. They got especially raucous when Michigan State’s best player, Aerial Powers, protested a foul midway through the fourth quarter. It lent a big-game atmosphere to the afternoon, and, for NU’s NCAA tournament chances, it was a big game.
The Huskers (17-8, 8-6 Big Ten) were up to the challenge on defense, frustrating Powers with a variety of defenders — Cincore, for the 26 minutes she was in the game — and shutting down MSU’s No. 2 scorer, Tori Jankoska, with the dervish that is Natalie Romeo. The 5-foot-7 sophomore played all 40 minutes, scored 25 points and had three steals. She also suffocated Jankoska, holding her to a single 3-pointer hit just seconds before the game ended.
Romeo, who also Sunday set the school’s record for most 3-pointers in a season, said she just listened to the scouting report. Yori said Romeo has evolved as a defender.
“Natalie has become a really solid defensive player and she’s had a lot of tough matchups this year,” Yori said.
Together, Powers and Jankoska combined for 22 points — 14 below their combined season average — on 19 shots. Powers grew frustrated against Cincore, whose foot speed was quick enough to shut off Powers’ penetration dribble. On one key fourth-quarter possession, Cincore snatched the ball from Powers near MSU’s basket and drew a charge.
“Jasmine did a really good job of being physical, not fouling and trying to keep the ball out of her hands as much as she could,” Yori said.
MSU’s three modest-scoring post players combined for 25 shots and 27 points, but none of that trio had much success defending Nebraska freshman center Jessica Shepard, who scored 26 points and only committed one turnover. Shepard was consistently fed by senior point guard Rachel Theriot, who had 12 assists. Theriot now has 47 assists in her last four games against eight turnovers. Yori praised Theriot’s “pinpoint” passes throughout the game.
“Rachel knows how to find an open player. She knows how to create shots,” Shepard said.
Theriot served Nebraska well in the final three minutes, when Michigan State (18-7, 9-5) sliced an 11-point lead to 66-60. In three possessions, Theriot found either Shepard or freshman Rachel Blackburn feet from the hoop. Blackburn iced the game with a driving layup that brought the majority of NU’s fans to their feet.
With the Huskers’ RPI hovering in the 70s before the game — it should move up into the 60s since Michigan State’s RPI was 25 — Sunday represented one of NU’s best chances to put a good win on the NCAA tournament résumé. Yori isn’t sure what it’ll take to secure an at-large bid.
“We have 17 wins,” Yori said. “I think if we can get to 20, it’d probably give us a really good chance. But we’ve got to take care of our home court.”
There no was guarantee of that after the loss at Minnesota, in which Nebraska tied its school record for most points surrendered. The Huskers trailed by more than 40 for chunks of the game and had no teeth on defense.
After that game, Shepard said, NU assistant Britney Brown addressed the team in the locker room. If that loss doesn’t hurt, Brown suggested, the team had better reevaluate things.
“For her to come in the locker room and say that as a younger coach, all of us looked at her and were like, ‘That’s real,’” Shepard said of Brown, who played collegiately at Oklahoma. “That was impactful on our team.”
It showed Sunday. Nebraska’s defensive energy was turned up.
“We all did a lot of thinking,” Shepard said. “I think we got embarrassed (at Minnesota). And so we knew we needed to come out and just play hard today, especially in front of a home crowd. You don’t want to let them down.”