LINCOLN — When you’ve never beaten the league’s best team, and that team’s coach is trying to earn her 500th career victory, the Nebraska women’s basketball team doesn’t need to hide its hunger.
“I want to win against Maryland this year really bad,” senior forward Maddie Simon said. She’s 0-5 against the No. 9 Terrapins — who visit Pinnacle Bank Arena Tuesday night at 7 — including a 0-3 mark last season, when NU came within a missed 3-pointer of notching its first win against the conference bully.
Maryland swept the regular-season and tournament titles in its first three years of Big Ten play before finishing second — with a young team — last year. The Terrapins are young again, with just one senior among their top 10 players. They’re also 13-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten. They’re first in scoring margin. And rebounding margin. Maryland’s top four rebounders are 6-foot-5, 6-4, 6-1 and 6-3.
“We have respect for the way they play the game,” NU coach Amy Williams said. “They really push in transition. They’re just trying to run and rebound, and they do that very, very well.”
Williams wouldn’t mind if, in the long run, her program looked a lot like that.
Sign up for World-Herald daily sports updates
Get the headlines from Creighton, Nebraska, UNO, high schools and other area teams.
The third-year coach has generally been elusive in citing any specific program as a role model for her own. On Monday, she hedged, but only a little bit, when asked if the team she’s building now — with 10 players, including four freshmen, averaging double-digit minutes — is designed, in the long run, to stand toe-to-toe with Maryland. Terps coach Brenda Frese, owner of 499 wins, prefers a deeper roster, too, often to the degree that her best players’ stats trend lower than lesser talents at other Big Ten schools. Maryland, too, features a roster in which nine players average double-digit minutes.
“We do try to build and strive for that top model,” Williams said. “I’ve never shied away from or been embarrassed about that. People will ask about UConn and their dominance or a team like Maryland and their dominance since they’ve been in the Big Ten. I absolutely think that’s a positive to give our program something to strive for, to know that type of dominance is possible.”
Nebraska’s depth — and length — has helped it control the fourth quarters of each Big Ten game, including the 77-71 loss at Iowa. NU is outscoring league foes by nearly 12 points over the last 10 minutes of the game.
“We play with fresh legs,” said freshman forward Leigha Brown, who won Big Ten freshman of the week honors. “A lot of teams only play with seven, eight players, and we can play nine or 10. That really helps us in the long run, playing in the fourth quarter.”
Williams balked at connecting depth and fourth quarter success, perhaps in part because she wants 40 strong minutes from her still-young team, not one that lies on the ropes for multiple quarters before a final surge.
She points to Brown, from Auburn, Indiana, as an example of a player who — in her manageable 17.6 minutes per game — gives full effort on offense and defense. Brown ranks eighth on the team in minutes, yet is the No. 2 scorer. She’s also reached the foul line more times (51) than any other Husker. Williams and her staff saw Brown’s scoring potential in training camp even if it didn’t initially transfer over to the games themselves. Since entering Big Ten play, she’s scored 16.7 points per game from “all three levels,” Williams said.
“Since Christmas break she’s been a lot more confident and consistent with her play, which we love to see,” Williams said.
Brown said she’s stayed aggressive. Even veteran teammates are happy to feed her. Williams likes that her older players, including Simon, don’t pull rank.
“This is an unselfish group that just doesn’t care who gets the credit, who gets the glory, who’s scoring points — they just want to win,” Williams said.
That ethos trickles down from the egalitarian Williams, who has historically favored playing a long bench. It’ll help withstand the waves of Maryland players who come at the Huskers.
“They have a lot of weapons — inside and outside — but so do we,” center Kate Cain said.
» Though Cain hasn’t had to play as much this season – she’s averaging four fewer minutes – the sophomore is crucial to battling with Maryland on the boards. She’s been in foul trouble against the Terps before and her foul-out in a 77-71 loss to Iowa proved costly in the game’s final minute, when the Hawkeyes grabbed two offensive rebounds.
“I have to be smart and not go for stupid fouls – especially things away from the basket,” Cain said. “Not only last year, but especially the last four, five games, I’ve been getting myself into some trouble pretty quick with not-smart fouls away from the basket.”
» Brown likes her pull-up jumper, being able to rise above defenders.
“I keep staying aggressive,” Brown said. “We have a lot of weapons, so obviously they can’t guard one person or focus on one person. That really opens up things for not only me, but everyone else.”