LINCOLN — Senior Day for the Nebraska women’s team had a bittersweet flavor. Two of the seniors, guards Rachel Theriot and Kyndal Clark, suited up, but injuries prevented them from playing.
But Nebraska beat Northwestern 76-67 with a surge of youth and a rare feat, as sophomore guard Natalie Romeo — making a late case to be first-team All-Big Ten — recorded the second triple-double in school history with 12 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
Romeo had major support from a trio of freshmen who combined for 37 points and 20 rebounds.
Freshman center Jessica Shepard’s performance — 13 points, eight boards — was her standard work. But freshman guard Maddie Simon’s stat line — 16 points, seven rebounds and a key trio of 3-pointers — was a pleasant surprise.
“I guess it took me the whole season, but I’ve kind of started figuring things out,” Simon said, giggling a bit. She’d earned the smile, as had her teammates, who grabbed the No. 7 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Nebraska will play 10th-seeded Rutgers at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis. The teams split their regular season series. A win over Rutgers and NU would face Ohio State on Friday.
Nebraska — 18-11 and 9-9 in the Big Ten with an RPI in the low 90s — likely needs at least two wins to even sniff an NCAA tournament at-large berth.
That’s because the last month of Husker hoops has been a bit of a depressive event, with often moribund defense, inconsistency on offense and season-ending injuries to Clark and Theriot, who officially is finished playing in Lincoln, as she’ll get surgery Monday on a chronically pained ankle. NU lost six of nine games in the 31 days, all by double digits.
The rough run of games included two straight losses at home — until Sunday.
Led by Romeo, Nebraska’s offense overcame a poor first quarter and 17 overall missed free throws to play its best offensive game in weeks. NU shot 50 percent and recorded 19 assists. Six players took at least six shots, which meant the offense didn’t devolve into three Huskers waiting for Romeo or Shepard to score. NU led 31-23 at halftime and extended it to 57-45 by the end of three quarters. And the Huskers, for once this Big Ten campaign, pummeled a team on the boards, outrebounding Northwestern 54-32.
“We had a lot of energy, we hit some shots, we rebounded the ball really, really well,” said junior forward Allie Havers, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds. “It was just all heart and effort, this game.”
Nebraska looked, in short, like the team coach Connie Yori had expected it to be — but rarely was — this season. It stood, too, in stark contrast to the previous Sunday, when NU moped and dragged through a 68-50 loss to Purdue.
“Young people have a tendency to be a little more inconsistent than maybe a generation ago,” Yori said. “I can’t always tell what side of the bed they wake up on. It’s good they woke up on the correct side of the bed today. We played for each other and with a lot of emotion. If I knew the answer, then we’d correct it. But I don’t always know the answer.
“You see that a lot now. We’re seeing more teams across the country who have inconsistencies. A lot of my teams in the past, you kind of knew what you were going to get every day. And this team, we don’t always know what we’re going to get.”
Simon, for example. The Lincoln Pius X grad started the season opener. But she was slowed by injuries, and she also had to adjust to the speed of the college game. Sunday, she appeared to have done that.
“She’s been up and down this year, which is pretty typical of freshmen, but we’re very high on her,” Yori said. “We think she’s going to be a really good player for us.”
Simon will get at least one more chance this season — and probably more, since NU figures to be in the WNIT if it doesn’t make the NCAA. So will freshman forward Rachel Blackburn, who chipped in eight points and five rebounds. And sophomore guard Jasmine Cincore, who may be NU’s No. 2 defender. And Romeo, whose freshman-to-sophomore progress was dramatic. The regular season ended for her on an emphatic note, though she didn’t know until after she spoke to the media, since an assist originally given to Havers was credited to Romeo afterward.
The team the Huskers trot out in Indianapolis — and anywhere else — will more or less be the team the Huskers have for next season. Yori doesn’t mind.
“It was fun to coach that team today,” she said.
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