LINCOLN — Hannah Whitish knows her hometown will be there — in force — right behind the Husker bench Saturday in Madison.
“The last couple years they’ve taken buses,” Whitish said. “Like, plural.”
That’s because Whitish’s old stomping ground, Barneveld, is 30 minutes from the Kohl Center. Any Husker fan who has driven east to a Nebraska-Wisconsin football game has probably passed through it, an exit on Highway 151, population 1,253. It’s an everybody-knows-everybody place, where there were six rows of bleachers on either side of the court when Whitish played. The kind of place that sends buses of fans to Whitish’s game in Wisconsin.
“They’ve been quite the supporters,” Whitish said. “It’s just been awesome.”
It’s her third and final trip to the Kohl Center. Whitish hasn’t won there yet. Last year’s 70-69 buzzer-beating setback was a gut punch to NU’s postseason hopes.
At 14-5 and 4-4 in the Big Ten, the Huskers appear in great shape for the NIT at the very least. The NCAA tournament is an iffier proposition, especially after Wednesday’s home loss to Purdue, an RPI top-30 opponent that Nebraska will not face again in the regular season. NU has two wins over RPI top-50 teams — No. 5 Iowa and No. 42 Duke — but only one true road win this season, over 5-14 Missouri.
So 10-9 Wisconsin — which lost 65-50 at NU on Jan. 9 — represents an opportunity for the Huskers.
“We’ve got to figure out how to take the show on the road and find out a way to win away from here,” coach Amy Williams said after the Purdue loss. “Everybody that we play from here is going to be very hungry, and we just need to make sure we are more.”
Nebraska has the four-player senior class to carry those expectations, including Whitish, who gets along with her teammates, Williams said. She’s kind and funny, the person you want on your side in a practice drill.
“She just provides this calming presence where if you get to be on Hannah’s team, it’s confidence that’s there,” Williams said. “It’s not super-duper fiery, but more of a confidence that everybody has that she’s going to get us in the right plays, do the right thing, say the right thing.”
Whitish’s selflessness — even as a senior — means the coaching staff must sometimes remind her to take more charge of the scoring load. It’s not uncommon for Whitish to embrace a supporting role on offense for chunks of a game. She took five shots against Purdue while backcourt-mate Sam Haiby took 16.
“The way we word it with Hannah is, ‘We need you to stay aggressive offensively,’ ” Williams said. “Sometimes she does fall into that deferring role, passing to other people because she can make good passes and she has confidence in her teammates. But our team is best when she stays aggressive-minded and is thinking score first.”
Whitish’s best games — like her 20 points and five assists against Michigan — tend to coincide with good wins. And she’s played well in two trips to Wisconsin, even if NU hasn’t come up with victories.
They need one Saturday. And Whitish will have a nice cheering section, too. She’s tried over the years to maintain a social media presence that allows family and friends back home to get a sense of what she’s experiencing at NU. Former coaches and teachers, people who used to babysit her as a kid.
Whitish is even familiar with several of Wisconsin’s players from their prep days. She played on the same AAU team as Badger reserve Alex Luehring.
“I have some friends on their team, and it’s just cool to be able to play them at the college level and not just high school,” Whitish said.