By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Nebraska utilized a stout defensive effort to stifle a high-scoring Michigan squad, winning 61-54. The third-seeded Cornhuskers advanced to a semifinal match with the Maryland Terrapins.
Nebraska, 21-9, earned its first semifinal appearance since the 2014 team won the conference tournament. The Cornhuskers have depended on defense all season long. The quarterfinal victory marked the 11th time this season they’ve held an opponent to 55 points or less. The disappointing outing for Michigan ended with the Wolverines scoring 22 points below their average. Coming into the game, Nebraska led the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense at 37.1 percent. Nebraska’s defensive length can be a nightmare for ball-dominant players, and it showed Friday night.
Michigan’s duo of Katelynn Flaherty and Hallie Thome did some damage offensively, but it was a frustrating evening for both. On Thursday against Penn State, Flaherty dropped 21 on 7-for-15 shooting from the field, 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Friday, she was 6-for-20 from the field and 5-for-12 from 3-point range for 17 points. Thome’s 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting was limited by the work of Nebraska’s Kate Cain.
Cain, a 6-foot, 5-inch freshman, proved she belonged on the court against two first team all-conference players. She blocked seven shots, many of which came against Thome. The Cornhuskers combined for 12 blocks, second most in a Big Ten Tournament game. When Cain and her teammates weren’t sending shots back, they were tying the ball up in Thome’s hands, forcing jump balls and turnovers.
“It was definitely like exciting,” Cain, who was named to the Big Ten all-defensive team, said of her team’s defensive effort. “I’m like happy that I was able to help contribute to the team. It was definitely just nice to be able to help the team out.”
Michigan, 22-9, experienced its offensive struggles early. From the 4:09 mark in the first quarter to the 8:16 mark in the second, the Wolverines did not score. Another drought, 5:38 in length, ended the second quarter. Despite the lack of offense, Michigan entered halftime only trailing by four points.
The Wolverines seemed to have their offensive issues figured out to begin the second half. Thome buried a few quick baskets and momentum flipped to Michigan. Then Nebraska locked up again. Michigan went on another scoring drought, spanning 3:50. Nebraska managed only a layup in that period, but it was enough to steal the momentum away.
The fourth quarter was an unexpected scoring onslaught. After both teams scored 10 points each in the third quarter, they doubled their scoring output in the fourth. When Cain developed foul trouble, Thome put up 11 points in the final quarter. Her outburst kept things interesting, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with Nebraska.
It took until midway through the fourth quarter for a Cornhusker to break double digits in scoring. Second team all-Big Ten selection Hannah Whitish, a 5-9 sophomore guard, was the first to do so. Seven of her 17 points came in the last three minutes of play. Her scoring stifled Michigan’s offensive momentum and sealed the victory for the Cornhuskers.
“Her play in the fourth quarter was really important,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said. “There was a really big 3-point shot that I know came at a really critical time that I was just proud and happy that she had the courage to take.”