LINCOLN — Kate Cain knew she had to make it. Her team led by a bucket, her shot would have made the lead four.
She had to make it, had to make it, had to make it. Had to. Four feet. Maybe not even that. And she hesitated. Stuck to a spot.
“I knew I couldn’t miss it as I was shooting, I knew I couldn’t miss it, and then I missed it,” the junior center said after Nebraska’s 80-74 overtime loss to Ohio State.
Cain’s shot came deep into overtime, well after NU lost a 15-point halftime lead to the Buckeyes by missing — not a misprint — 24 of 28 shots in the second half. The Huskers led 49-34 at the break, running Ohio State ragged up and down the court, forcing OSU coach Kevin McGuff to call two timeouts just so he could slow the momentum.
It was a dream first half for Nebraska. Three players scored in double figures. Twelve assists. An edge on the boards. Beautiful stuff.
“Probably one of the best halves of basketball this team has played,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said.
The second half was a nightmare from which NU (15-7, 5-6 Big Ten) kept trying to wake up. A few extra shots fall, maybe the Huskers do. But they kept missing. And Ohio State (12-9, 5-5) kept prolonging possessions with offensive rebounds.
The 15-point lead became 12, then nine, then six by the end of the third quarter. NU shots were short, long, tipped, air balls. Nebraska made one shot in that quarter, duplicating miserable third-quarter performances at Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Yeah, Williams conceded with frustration, some of it is mental.
“Obviously, there’s been a lot of attention, a lot of people asking about the third quarters, and what’s going wrong in the third quarters and that can sometimes get into players’ heads and they’re pressing and they want to get off to a great start,” Williams said. “Then, you miss a few shots and then you kind of let that take the wind out of your sails a little bit.”
Cain said NU’s game plan was to get paint touches for forwards. In the first half, Nebraska did that, scoring 22 points in the paint. In the second half, the Buckeyes improved their ball-screen defense, McGuff said, and got back in transition.
As a result, the Huskers weren’t as open for easy points. They had to contend with OSU’s physical, athletic defense and — much as been the case this season — NU couldn’t finish at the rim. The Huskers made 2 of 13 3-pointers over the final 25 minutes, too.
Nebraska’s defense was good enough — and Ohio State, which missed 59 shots, was cold enough — that it basically took an entire second half for NU’s lead to finally evaporate. Nebraska forward Leigha Brown missed a jumper with two seconds left to win the game, and regulation ended at 68-68.
NU then led for much of overtime and was up 74-72 when Cain, who finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks, had that bunny with 1:19 left. She shot it more like a jumper than a layup, and it landed unmercifully short.
On the ensuing possession, the Buckeyes converted a three-point play. They finished the game on an 8-0 run, using a couple of their 25 offensive rebounds to finish off the win.
The crowd of 4,189 at Pinnacle Bank Arena hustled away to Super Bowl parties — several fans wore Patrick Mahomes No. 15 jerseys — and only a few remained to give Nebraska a small golf clap as it exited the floor.
Afterward, Cain and Williams both looked frustrated. NU has now lost three of four — all in the fourth quarter, all against teams more physical when it counted most.
The Huskers’ NCAA tournament chances are in jeopardy as they travel to Iowa, the top team in the league. Nebraska has beaten the Hawkeyes in league play, but is this the same Husker squad that won that game in late December?
“We have so much talent on this team, and so much ability, and we just need to get back to playing how I know we can play,” Cain said. “Executing and pushing through all this. We start to slow down and take our foot off the pedal sometimes. We have so much potential, if we keep our foot on the pedal, to win so many games.”
Williams said the locker room mood is “pretty emotional.”
“They feel like we’re a better team than what we’re showing and what we’re playing,” Williams said. “And that’s really tough, that’s really tough to swallow. They’ve poured a lot into this and, to watch it slip away with a couple turnovers, stops, giving up offensive rebounds, things like that, those little things you let slip away? That can cost you games in the Big Ten.”
Nebraska knows it, and wants to stop it. It has to. But it hasn’t yet.