LINCOLN — For three quarters Friday night, Nicea Eliely didn’t take a shot. The Nebraska women’s basketball forward didn’t score a point, either.
“Seriously?” her teammate, Maddie Simon, asked Eliely after Nebraska’s 70-56 comeback win over Michigan.
“Yeah!” Eliely said with a grin that spoke volumes about her fourth quarter — the best of her Husker career and perhaps her life.
The junior forward from Colorado Springs scored 14 points over the final 10 minutes and received a standing ovation from the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd after back-to-back steals. She didn’t see the 4,450 fans cheering. She’d just been fouled. She was locked in to the moment. So were her teammates.
After nearly two months of shoddy defensive play, the Huskers smothered Michigan for 40 minutes, forcing 23 turnovers and scoring 23 points off of them. They clogged driving lanes. They challenged Michigan’s guards well beyond the 3-point line, frustrating the Wolverines’ efforts to feed their big post players. They stayed in the “shooting pocket,” coach Amy Williams said, of the one opponent who could really hurt them from the 3-point line. Michigan’s Nicole Munger, guarded largely by Husker junior Hannah Whitish, took one 3-pointer all game. She missed it.
That effort — desired by Williams since roughly the opening tip of the season — kept Nebraska (6-6, 1-0 Big Ten) in the game for the three quarters when its own offense was a horror show of missed 3s and bricked layups.
“They really committed to it defensively,” Williams said.
No one committed more, Williams said, than Eliely, who finished with four steals. Since her arrival in 2016, Eilely has started nearly every game because of her ability to guard multiple positions. She can step into crosscourt passing lanes — as she did on one steal — or swipe it straight clean from the hands of an opponent, as she did in the fourth quarter, when she had two steals 16 seconds apart, which led to two drawn fouls, three made free throws and all that clapping.
By then, Nebraska had already erased the six-point deficit carried over from an ugly third quarter that featured multiple gasps from the crowd on missed transition Husker layups. Michigan led 43-37 and threatened to start NU’s league schedule off on a sour note.
But Eliely hit a 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter. Her first shot — and first points — of the game. That triggered a 7-0 run — punctuated by a hook shot from center Kate Cain — that gave NU its first lead since early in the game. Michigan (9-4, 0-1 Big Ten) briefly retook the lead before freshman guard Sam Haiby hit two free throws. Cue Eliely’s two steals and the remaining avalanche of points — 33 in the fourth quarter alone.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve had a quarter like that,” Eliely said.
Simon, the team’s only playing senior, piped up.
“I think that shows anyone and everyone on our team has the ability to step up and just make plays at different times,” she said. “You never know who it’s going to be.”
Michigan, in its first season without former star point guard Katelynn Flaherty, looked flustered by Nebraska’s defense. The Wolverines were whistled for eight traveling calls.
“That was a lot,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Especially when it was only one side that was getting those traveling calls.”
Williams will take it. She’d been “harping” on defense. Positioning on rebounds. Awareness of team defensive situations. Being aggressive on the ball. For a night, her whole team listened and executed on that side of the court. Eliely, always consistent on defense, led the way.
“Nicea just did a fantastic job of playing inside of herself and using the things she’s great at,” Williams said. “She created some offense with defense.”
Michigan (9-4, 0-1)............13 18 12 13—56
At Nebraska (6-6, 1-0).......10 17 10 33—70
UM: Hillmon 2-3 0-0 4, Brown 4-7 2-4 12, Thome 5-14 4-5 14, Church 3-11 3-5 9, Munger 2-5 0-0 4, Dilk 3-8 1-2 7, Robbins 1-2 3-4 5, Johnson 0-3 1-2 1. Totals: 20-53 14-22 56.
NU: Simon 4-8 1-2 10, Cain 2-5 1-2 5, Eliely 3-3 7-8 14, Kissinger 3-6 0-0 8, Whitish 1-10 2-2 5, Mershon 1-5 0-1 2, Veerbeek 1-4 0-0 3, Brown 3-9 4-4 11, Haiby 4-10 2-2 12. Totals 22-60 17-21 70.
3-point field goals: UM 2-10 (Brown 2-4, Munger 0-1, Johnson 0-2, Church 0-3), NU 9-24 (Haiby 2-3, Kissinger 2-5, Eliely 1-1, Veerbeek 1-2, Brown 1-3, Simon 1-3, Whitish 1-6, Mershon 0-1). Rebounds: UM 39 (Church 9), NU 37 (Eliely 6). Assists: UM 6 (Dilk 3), NU 14 (Eliely 3, Whitish 3, Mershon 3). Turnovers: UM 23, NU 15. Total fouls: UM 21, NU 22. Fouled out: none. A: 4,450.