Husker women fall in regular-season finale as Hawkeyes benefit from fourth-quarter surge

The Huskers’ starting backcourt of Hannah Whitish, Leigha Brown and Nicea Eliely finished 6 for 26 from the floor. 

LINCOLN — While their senior teammate talked to friends and family after an emotional send-off in her final home game, freshmen reserves Ashtyn Veerbeek and Sam Haiby represented the Nebraska women’s basketball players Monday night.

The Huskers had just lost 74-58 to rival Iowa, which, using just six players in its regular rotation, blasted NU in the second and fourth quarters. That seems counterintuitive — shouldn’t a team with five starters playing at least 32 minutes get tired? — but the No. 12 Hawkeyes have the Big Ten’s best player in center Megan Gustafson. And Nebraska’s impressive depth — nine players logged at least 18 minutes — also belies a frustrating inconsistency.

How much? Gustafson’s 29 points and 20 rebounds — that’s a normal night for her — outscored and outrebounded NU’s starting five, which finished with 27 and 15.

Backups Haiby (12 points) and Veerbeek (10 points, six rebounds) were Nebraska’s best players Monday. But some games, they’re cold and the starters are hot.

The Huskers, now 13-15 on the season and 8-9 in the Big Ten, have never quite found the formula for consistency. They had one senior — Lincoln Pius X graduate Maddie Simon — this season.

Iowa has three, including Gustafson. Maybe that’s the difference.

“I have a lot of respect for experience, and I think that it showed for Iowa tonight,” coach Amy Williams said. Iowa, which still has a shot to share the Big Ten title, is the kind of team, Williams said, that makes opponents pay when they lose focus. Gustafson, a 6-3 scoring wizard whose variety of moves and deft touch set her apart in the women’s college game, also makes foes pay when they drop their guard.

“As soon as you get a little fatigued and lose focus for a second about how you need to be working and dancing, she’s going to make you pay for that,” Williams said. “Lots of teams have tried, and very few have been able to find ways to slow her down.”

For nearly all of the third quarter, when it erased a nine-point halftime deficit, NU held Gustafson in check. Her point total stayed on 17 for nearly nine minutes. Nebraska tied the game at 43 on a layup by Simon, who had a chance to give the Huskers the lead with a free throw.

She missed it. And Iowa (22-5, 13-4) proceeded to retake control by harnessing the fear of Gustafson’s ability.

The Hawkeyes hit two corner 3-pointers — one by Tania Davis, the other by Kathleen Doyle — to close the quarter on a 9-4 run. On both 3s, Nebraska defenders sagged off Iowa shooters just enough to give them breathing room. That, Williams said, pointed to Nebraska’s desire to help Husker posts in guarding Gustafson.

Those double daggers gave Iowa a 52-47 lead.

Gustafson, a shoo-in All-American who could be the nation’s best player, then iced the win by scoring her team’s first eight points of the fourth quarter, splashing jumpers. NU made 4 of 13 shots in the fourth quarter.

The whimper of an ending dampened the competitive fire of the first three quarters. Bodies were on the floor. Players protested foul calls. The 5,071 in attendance shouted and pointed. Doyle, who backed out of a Nebraska commitment to sign with Iowa, had a little fun with the crowd. So did Davis.

“Both teams wanted it really bad,” said Veerbeek, the Hull (Iowa) Western Christian star who spurned the Hawkeyes to pick the Huskers. She could have learned under Gustafson, if she’d wanted. Veerbeek chose instead to guard her Monday night.

The 6-foot-2 freshman will also take important lessons from Simon, who enjoyed a warm celebration of her time at Nebraska.

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“Maddie was the perfect senior that we could have had coming in,” Veerbeek said. “She was a great role model and teammate ... being a senior from Lincoln, you’d think she’d have all these people she would go to, but she cared about her teammates.”

Williams, who wept on the court while honoring Simon, called her “selfless.” Simon signed with Nebraska when Connie Yori was still the coach, stayed after Yori resigned, battled confidence issues throughout her sophomore season, switched positions as a junior and was replaced in the starting lineup halfway through her senior year.

Simon was offered a starting spot for Senior Night. She declined because she didn’t want to disrupt chemistry. That, Williams said, is the kind of person Simon is.

“She has taken everything that has been thrown at her in her basketball career at Nebraska and she’s taken it in stride,” Williams said. “And she’s handled it with grace and class and poise.”

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