LINCOLN — Kate Cain and Ashtyn Veerbeek couldn’t recall many moments they played at the same time last season for Nebraska.
“Couple minutes against Michigan once,” Veerbeek said.
Said Cain: “That’s all that sticks out.”
It’s because they tag-teamed the center role, with Veerbeek relieving Cain. In Nebraska’s season-opening 68-46 win over Alabama A&M, they played side-by-side in the starting lineup. Cain stayed at center. Veerbeek, after months of offseason development, moved to power forward, which in Nebraska’s system means she’s out on the floor, often behind the 3-point line, on offense and guarding slashers on defense.
The early returns were good. The duo combined for 20 points and 13 rebounds. Cain, arguably the best defensive center in school history, also supplied eight blocks. She wore NU’s “Top Dog” chain afterward, given to the player who shows up most in hustle categories.
“We do work together really well because we look for each other — inside or outside. We really do see each other,” Cain said. “That’s going well.”
So did the first 23 minutes, 38 seconds — Nebraska coach Amy Williams rounded it up to 25 — as NU built a 46-14 lead against a SWAC team coached by former Husker guard Margaret Richards. It all looked good, especially when NU’s starters were in the game.
The final 16:22 will not end up in the season scrapbook. In front of 5,250 — most of them schoolchildren in town for a morning pep rally and midafternoon game — the Bulldogs went on several runs. They forced turnovers and racked up offensive rebound after offensive rebound as officials swallowed their whistles and NU guards got hacked, smacked, stripped and even a little tossed around.
“If you would have told me before the game we were going to give up 25 offensive rebounds and still even be in the ballgame, I probably would not have believed you, but I think we did a pretty good job of overcoming that,” Williams said. “And for about 25 minutes of this game, I thought it was pretty good defense.”
“Plenty of room for improvement,” Williams said.
A&M closed to 55-38 when Dariauna Lewis — an Omaha North graduate who finished with eight points and nine rebounds — hit a layup with 7:53 left. That’s when senior guard Hannah Whitish hit back-to-back 3-pointers from the corner to stem the surge and leave NU on cruise control to the finish. Whitish hit back-to-back 3s early in the game, too, to help the Huskers grab an early lead.
“Hannah Whitish was a bright spot for us behind the arc,” Williams said.
Nebraska only made five 3-pointers for the game. A&M hit 2 of 16, though. Nigeria Jones, a Lincoln Northeast graduate, missed all five of her attempts, though she led the Bulldogs in scoring with 16. As a team, A&M shot 25.3% — taking 79 shots — and 50% at the foul line.
Nebraska was better — 42.6% on 54 shots and 70.8% on 24 free-throw attempts. And while Williams would have liked her team to finish off the Bulldogs more cleanly, she conceded the physicality of the second half was “good preparation” for the season to come.
“A lot of physical and mental toughness — not letting it get to you,” Cain said. “Because it’s easy if you’re getting hacked to be, ‘Oh, the ref should be calling that.’ ”
The 6-foot-5 junior ran the floor better and embraced the scrappiness. The 6-2 Veerbeek — a sophomore and one of NU’s most gifted scorers — meanwhile moves to a position suited to her offensive talents. She hit a 3-pointer, had a three-point play on a fake screen-and-dive to the hoop, and hit five free throws.
“The more and more we practiced having me on the perimeter it became more comfortable,” Veerbeek said. “I felt more confident looking into Kate to make those passes and just getting used to guarding up the floor than down in the post.”
» NU played all but one of its scholarship players Wednesday. Freshman guard Trinity Brady is in the concussion protocol, Williams said.
» The Huskers next play Sunday at Missouri, which beat Western Illinois 97-89 Tuesday night in overtime.