July 16, 2023 

State of the Program: After missing NCAA Tournament, Nebraska eager to get back out there

Huskers trying to bounce back after missing out on NCAA Tournament in 2022-23

2021-22 was a personal-best season for Nebraska head coach Amy Williams since she’d taken over the program five years earlier. The Cornhuskers had finished sixth in the Big Ten and reached the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to No. 9 Gonzaga in the first round.

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Finishing 24-9 with four of its top five scorers returning in 2022-23, Nebraska seemed like a strong bet to qualify for back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since it qualified in four straight years from 2012 through 2015. That’s not how it panned out in Lincoln, however.

Partially because of injuries and partially because of a general lack of consistency, the Huskers were a bit Jekyll and Hyde-like this past season. They pulled off an eye-opening, 23-point win on the road against Maryland but also lost to Minnesota, the second-worst team in the conference.

Nebraska did participate in the WNIT, reaching the third round where it lost to Kansas in a rematch of a triple-overtime thriller that the Huskers had won earlier in the season, but it was still a disappointing year for a team with the talent to make some noise in March.

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“I feel like it really just boils down to consistency,” Williams told The Next. “We felt like this past season we were not as consistent as we really need to be. We were so proud we had some awesome wins, going on the road and beating Maryland and beating Illinois and having some really great wins for our program, but (we were) also just not able to keep the consistency up.

“That’s something we’ve been really striving for this offseason is just knowing that our ability to show up, bring that same intensity and same consistency and same production each and every night, that’s a big part of it. That’s what NCAA Tournament teams need to do, and that’s what we plan to do.”

2022-23 record: 18-15 (8-10 Big Ten); lost in WNIT Super 16 to Kansas (64-55).

Big Ten finish: 8th

Notable wins: @ Mississippi State (73-65), @ Maryland (90-67), vs. Kansas (85-79, 3OT), @ Purdue (71-64), @ Illinois (90-57).

Departures: Sam Haiby (graduation), Isabelle Bourne (playing professionally in Australia), Trinity Brady (graduation), Nailah Dillard (graduation).

Additions: Darian White (transferring from Montana State), Logan Nissley (first-year), Jessica Petrie (first-year), Natalie Potts (first-year).

Key returners: Jaz Shelley, Alexis Markowski, Allison Weidner.

2023-24 will be the first time since 2017-18 that neither Sam Haiby nor Isabelle Bourne will be on the Nebraska roster. Haiby’s final season was marred by injury, but she brought tremendous value to the court in her five seasons. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, Haiby ranked in the top 10th percentile in terms of win shares, per Her Hoop Stats. Offensively, she was a strong distributor (averaged nearly 3.5 assists per game in her career), and defensively, she was the head of the snake (averaged 1.5 steals per game last year).

Bourne, meanwhile, consistently ranked at the top of the Huskers’ stat sheet in scoring and rebounding. She decided to forgo her final year of eligibility to play professionally in Australia.

Even though Bourne and Haiby have moved on, the legacies they leave behind will surely stick with the returning group.

“It’s really hard to put into words. I get emotional almost every time I talk about what those two young ladies have really meant to our program,” Williams said. “They’ve seen our program go through a lot of growth and a lot of highs and lows, and they just stayed steady through that all. Most definitely our program is in a way different and better place than it was when those two kids were making their decision to come be Huskers. They’ve definitely defined, ‘Leave things better than you found it.’”

The good news for Nebraska headed into next season is that the talent should still be there again, even without Haiby and Bourne. Jaz Shelley led the Huskers’ offense last year, averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 assists per game and returns for her third and final season in Lincoln.

Beyond her on-court skill, though, a leadership void needs to be filled. So far, Shelley’s already helped take the reins.

“She’s already shown huge steps and strides of just stepping into a leadership role, watching the way she’s just grown and taken several of our players under her wing,” Williams said. “I think that really sets the tone for our entire program, so that’s something that I’m thrilled that we’re going to have back for another year.”

Former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Alexis Markowski also looks to be a focal point of Nebraska’s offense. Averaging nearly a double-double last season (11.9 points, 9.8 rebounds), Williams said improved field goal percentage is her main focus.

In 2021-22, Markowski shot 49.2% from the field, good for the 90th percentile in the country; last season, that number dropped to 43.3%, in the 70th percentile. While not terrible, she knows she’s capable of taking that next step forward.

“She’d love to be able to watch her efficiency offensively go up and just be a more consistent finisher,” Williams said. “She’d love to see those field goal percentages just go up and up and up as she finishes her career.”

Williams added Montana State transfer Darian White to supplement the offense and defense along with Shelley and Markowski. A two-time Big Sky defensive player of the year, Williams expects her energy to galvanize her teammates.

“Darian is really spunky. She just plays with a motor,” Williams said. “Having a defensive player of the year under your belt is a really good sign as well. She wants to play on both ends of the court, and she’s an outstanding kid with a great attitude who wants to be great and wants to compete and wants to challenge herself at a high level. We’re really excited about the way she can transition in here.”

White, in addition to three freshmen – Logan Nissley, Natalie Potts and Jessica Petrie – inject a fresh energy into Nebraska to complement an already talented group.

And if the Huskers can replicate the success they had at College Park against the Terps in early December last season with more consistency, they should be an NCAA Tournament contender once again.

“I’m most looking forward to just getting back out there with these young ladies doing what they love to do,” Williams said. “I’m most looking forward to getting back out there with this group and back in Pinnacle Bank Arena in front of 14,000 crazy Husker fans just cheering this team on as they lay it on the line.”

For further offseason reading on Big Ten women’s basketball, check out Eric Rynston-Lobel’s full State of the Program series.

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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