An improved season for the Nebraska women’s basketball season had still been missing something, but not anymore.
Nebraska defeated 20th ranked Iowa 74-65 on Tuesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, giving Nebraska its first win against a ranked team this season in its third attempt at doing so, and coach Amy Williams' first win over a ranked opponent with the Huskers.
Nebraska had lost nine straight games against ranked opponents over three seasons, with the Huskers’ last win against a ranked team coming against No. 17 Michigan State on Feb. 14, 2016.
The Huskers improved their record to 13-6 — six more wins than all of last season — and 4-2 in the Big Ten Conference.
Iowa had won five consecutive games against Nebraska.
It was just a few days ago when Nebraska let a win against a ranked team slip away in an overtime loss against No. 23 Michigan. Now the Huskers have one.
“It feels great, after coming up a little bit short last game against Michigan, who was also ranked,” NU junior forward Maddie Simon said. “That was a big motivation for us just to come out strong and get this win against a ranked team is huge for us, and coach says for postseason to beat a ranked team is big if we want to get in the tournament ourselves.”
The Huskers weren’t pleased with some parts about how the game went — Nebraska missed 17 free throws and got outrebounded 53-40 — but was still smiling about a big win.
“It gives you a little bit more of a spark,” said sophomore point guard Hannah Whitish. “It might give you a little more confidence going into the next game.”
There have been some milestone moments for Williams this season, such as winning on the road after not doing so all of last season. This was another one.
“I think this is a really exciting win for our team,” Williams said. “It’s something that I feel like we’re finally able to get over the hump on one of those.”
Simon led the Huskers with 19 points — the second-highest total of her career — including two big three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Whitish added 18 points and Taylor Kissinger had 12.
Nebraska made nine three-pointers, helping to take some of the sting off of shooting 17-for-35 on free throws. The Huskers only had eight turnovers in the game.
Junior post Megan Gustafson led Iowa with 29 points, including 13-of-23 shooting from the field.
But Nebraska’s defense still held Iowa 14 points under its season average, and the Hawkeyes (15-4, 3-3) did not make a three-pointer in the game on seven attempts.
Nebraska outscored Iowa 23-14 in the second quarter, when the Huskers made 5-of-9 threes, and led by nine points at halftime. That included a very big stretch in the game, where NU showed some toughness. There was a stretch of about five minutes of game time in which there were no stoppages.
In that stretch Nebraska surged ahead with an 8-0 run for the Huskers’ largest lead to that point, 29-24. In that stretch Emily Wood and Whitish each made three-pointers, and Whitish added a fast-break layup. When the timeout finally came, Whitish had her hands on her knees in exhaustion.
“That was definitely a mental moment, mental toughness,” Whitish said. “Games are going to happen like that. You’re going to have times where you go four minutes, three minutes without a dead ball, and you have to make sure you push through for your teammates.”
The Huskers’ lead reached 15 points in the third quarter. But Nebraska couldn’t get shots to drop and Iowa used a 10-0 run to quickly cut its deficit to five points.
NU still had the lead, 53-47, to start the fourth quarter.
Whitish made a three-pointer to stretch the Huskers lead to eight points. But Gustafson made two more field goals and Iowa was within three points with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska’s offense was in a rough patch, but Simon made a three-pointer to stretch the Huskers’ lead back to six points and provide a major dose of momentum with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then Simon did it again, making another three that put the Huskers up 64-53.
“They went to a zone defense, and I thought we got a little stagnant, but Maddie sparked us with a couple of big baskets that really gave us that offensive punch that we needed,” Williams said.
Iowa got its deficit down to four points with 1:30 to play. But Jasmine Cincore scored right away on a layup to put the Huskers up 69-63, and was fouled. That was big because Gustafson fouled out on the play. Iowa only made one more field goal the rest of the game, and never got closer than five points in the final minute.