Just a week ago, No. 15 Nebraska was rolling past Massachusetts-Lowell, a program in its first year of Division I basketball. On Wednesday, the Huskers are in Chapel Hill, N.C., to face No. 18 North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The contrast is startling, but typical for preseason basketball schedules. While the UMass-Lowell game was really nothing more than a tuneup, Huskers-Tar Heels is a temperature game to find out just where Connie Yori’s team rates in the national picture.
“They have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country,” Yori said. “I’m familiar with (freshman) Diamond DeShields from when I was on the USA Basketball committee, and I’m familiar with some of those other kids because they play at a high level. I know that they’re super-athletic.”
North Carolina is 6-2 this season after going 2-1 at the Cancun Challenge over Thanksgiving weekend. Its top three scorers are freshmen: DeShields, the daughter of former Major League Baseball standout Delino DeShields, averages 16.8 points per game; guard Allisha Gray comes off the bench to score 15.4 per game; and 6-foot-3 forward Stephanie Mavunga comes in at 14.8 points. Sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel (10.5 ppg) is the daughter of former NBA star Xavier McDaniel.
North Carolina is without Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, who is receiving treatment for leukemia. Longtime assistant coach Andrew Calder has taken over the program in her absence.
Nebraska is coming off its first loss of the season, falling at home Saturday to Washington State 76-72. The Huskers gave up 12 three-pointers in the game and fell behind by as many as 19 points before rallying to within one point late.
“It was a variety of things (on defense),” Yori said. “In our zone, they found the open player, made the extra pass, and we didn’t rotate. We had a hard time staying in front of players. The new rules make it hard to guard, but we have to get better. I think you’re going to see more high-scoring games in both men’s and women’s basketball. That’s a good thing, but we’ve got to score, too.”
While Yori is confident in her starting five, there has been little contribution from the bench. The starters — Jordan Hooper, Emily Cady, Rachel Theriot, Hailie Sample and Tear’a Laudermill — are scoring nearly 80 percent of the Huskers 75.4 points per game. And the discrepancy against better opponents is even more pronounced because Yori often tightens up the rotation and plays her starters more.
“We’re concerned about our bench,” Yori said. “We’re not as deep as we want to be. We’re searching for backup players because there’s a big drop-off when we put our subs in. ‘T’ (Laudermill) has been productive in that fifth spot, but we have to get production from those other players.”
That puts the onus on players such as freshman post Allie Havers; guards Hanna Tvrdy, Sadie Murren and Brandi Jeffery; and junior post Katie Simon to improve their games.
“There’s a lot of pressure for us to continue on what they (the starters) have already started,” Simon said. “We don’t want to have a huge drop-off like we tended to have in the past. So our focus when we get in there is to maintain what they’ve already started.”