There’s a sting that comes with missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
The Nebraska women’s basketball team hasn’t been coy about that. That was its goal from day one of the 2022-23 season: make March Madness and find a way to avoid an early exit.
As we all know, that didn’t happen. Close losses down the stretch kept the Huskers on the wrong side of the bubble and a first-game exit at the Big Ten Tournament cemented their status — sending them to the WNIT.
One question that percolates for all WNIT teams, not just Nebraska:
Will players care and actually be competitive? Or will they come into the arena lackadaisical — not giving their all since this isn’t the NCAA Tournament?
Nebraska proved Wednesday against Missouri State that it’s the former, beating the Bears 74-65 for NU’s first postseason win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“Our goal was to play in the postseason,” said senior guard Sam Haiby. “We fell a little bit short of our ultimate one, but we have a great opportunity ahead of us now. It was fun to get that first one under our belts. Now we’re going to keep plugging away."
Haiby isn’t ready for her career to be over.
Or, at least her play Wednesday certainly suggested that — to everyone in the building, everyone watching on BTN+, and to Nebraska coach Amy Williams.
“It really looked that way to me,” Williams said. “She stayed really locked-in. We’ve been talking about mentally tough players just find a way to stay focused on the task at hand. She just toughed it out through the normal bruises that come up this time of year.”
She had a season-high 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting with 11 made free throws.
That isn’t a new phenomenon for Haiby. She’s a postseason machine.
In last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga, she scored 20 points — her season high. In 2021 in the WNIT, she scored 20 points in NU’s loss to Colorado.
What worked this time?
Paint touches. All but one of Haiby’s attempts were layups. The other, her final attempt of the game, was a three-pointer that went amiss.
“It was a huge goal of ours this game to try to attack the lane in either scoring there or for kick-out shots,” Haiby said. “I was just trying to attack the paint, finish and get to the free-throw line.”
Isabelle Bourne added: “I want to get the ball to her every single time. I’m catching it up high and I’m giving it to her or setting her a screen to go to the basket, because when she’s getting hot, you can’t stop her. And everyone knows that.”
While Haiby set the paint ablaze with her scoring, Nebraska was freezing cold in another area: rebounds.
The Huskers managed to grab 36 rebounds, with only eight offensive rebounds.
Teams don’t win very often with numbers like that.
Before Wednesday, Nebraska had tallied fewer than 36 rebounds in six games. They only won one of those contests — at Maryland.
Inversely, Nebraska’s goal coming in was to keep Missouri State’s offensive rebounds in the single digits. The Bears blew that out of the water, grabbing 23 off the offensive glass — with one single possession in the fourth quarter that featured three offensive boards before Alexis Markowski was called for a foul on Missouri State's fourth shot attempt.
In total, the Bears came down with 47 rebounds.
Kennedy Taylor — a 6-foot-3 forward who earned third-team All-Missouri Valley and Missouri Valley All-Newcomer awards — grabbed nine offensive rebounds and 14 total.
“Hopefully there’s no more Kennedy Taylors that we go up against,” Williams said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to really commit to that and do a much better job of staying disciplined.”
If Nebraska rides Haiby’s hot hand, it could have a chance to cut down the nets in April.
But if its rebounding effort echoes Wednesday’s production? The Huskers' WNIT journey might end soon.
Photos: Huskers host Missouri State to kick off WNIT at PBA
A Funk native and graduate of Lincoln Southeast, Amie Just joined the Journal Star as sports columnist after spending five seasons covering football for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Missoulian in Missoula, Montana.