By Joe Tykane
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan’s pursuit of its first Big Ten Women’s Basketball Championship came to an end on Friday after the Wolverines were beaten by Nebraska, 76-73, in a quarterfinal at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Nebraska (24-7) advanced to a semifinal against Iowa on Saturday evening with a chance to reach a third Big Ten championship game. The Cornhuskers were led by junior guard Sam Haiby and freshman guard Allison Weidner, who each scored 16 points and combined for seven assists.
Third-seeded Michigan (22-6), had started the season by winning 20 of its first 22 games and had a record of 8-2 against ranked teams. The seeding was the highest for the Wolverines in the conference tournament. Kim Barnes Arico was selected as Big Ten Coach of the Year. Forward Naz Hillmon averaged 21 points, nine rebounds, and two assists on the year and was the 12th leading scorer in the nation.
Hillmon scored 18 points to move into second place in the history of Michigan’s women’s program, surpassing Hallie Thome with a total of 2,098 points.
Nebraska will continue its pursuit of its first Big Ten Championship since 2014. To reach the championship game Sunday evening, the Huskers will have to go through the Iowa Hawkeyes and Caitlin Clark, the Big Ten Player of the Year. Clark is currently leading the nation in both scoring and assists. Trae Young of the Oklahoma men’s team, who led the nation in both categories in 2018, is the only other player in men’s or women’s Division I history to accomplish the feat.
Nebraska got off to a hot start in this game, outscoring Michigan 26-14 in the first quarter. Freshman forward Annika Stewart did a lot of the damage early on, splashing in two 3-pointers and finishing in the post. On defense she altered shots in the paint too. The second quarter was a different story, as Michigan came roaring back to life. The Wolverines scored 22 points and held Nebraska to just six, leaving Michigan with a 36-32 lead going into the half.
Nebraska’s Jaz Shelley was unable to replicate her 32 point 3-point barrage from her previous game as Michigan held her in check. She finished with 12 points and it was clear that Michigan made stopping Shelley a point of emphasis.
When Shelley had the ball on pick and rolls, Michigan kept two defenders on her with blitzes and hard hedges. Shelley moved off the ball and Michigan face guarded her, determined not to give her an inch of daylight when she ran around screens. Nebraska freshman Alexis Markowski also struggled in today’s game, finishing with four points and missing three field goal attempts. Haiby scored nine points in the fourth quarter and her tough and-one finish with 1:30 to play gave Nebraska a 74-73 lead. Weidner made two game-sealing free throws.
Junior Bella Cravens and MiCole Cayton were able to bolster the offense as sparkplugs off the bench, combining for 11 points on four shots.
Barnes Ariko said after the game, “They have some experience. They have some big-time players and Haiby made some plays down the stretch that big-time players make. So I think it’s a credit to Nebraska as well and not so much kind of what’s wrong with us. But they played a heck of a game as well.”
Nebraska has shown it can win in a multitude of ways. The Huskers have star players who can take over games, and they have the depth to win games as a collective. “We need everybody to find a way to step in and step up and raise their level of play,” said Nebraska coach Amy Williams. On Saturday, the Huskers will attempt to take another step toward a championship.