LINCOLN — Amy Williams said it with a smile Monday, but her words gave a glimpse of just how tough her first year was as Nebraska women’s basketball coach.
“Our kids are figuring out how to play hard and finish plays,” Williams said Monday. “And that was a big obstacle and hurdle and something we really wanted to establish in our culture.”
At 7-22 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten, NU had one of the worst seasons in school history. Afterward, the team’s best player, center Jessica Shepard, transferred to Notre Dame. Williams didn’t bring up Shepard, the five-star Fremont native who could be as inconsistent as she was dynamic. Williams, instead, touted better chemistry and a new focus on “effort, energy and enthusiasm.”
The Huskers, who started preseason camp in early October, made big strides in those categories, Williams said.
“We really feel like that’s one of the biggest pieces that were missing: our ability to finish plays and finish quarters and finish strong,” Williams said. “Increased conditioning and strength is really going to translate. We don’t know how that’s going to translate in wins and losses, but just being competitive, that’ll be a big difference to us.”
Better guard depth should help, too. Women’s basketball is a guard’s game and the Huskers had few experienced options last season, especially players who could get to the rim and protect the ball. NU committed an average of 17.5 turnovers per game last season.
Now Nebraska has seven guards and two more players — Taylor Kissinger and Grace Mitchell — who can play guard if necessary. NU added transfers Bria Stallworth (Massachusetts) and Janay Morton (Eastern Michigan) — both sat out last season per NCAA guidelines — and five-star recruit Kissinger, who scored 1,751 points in her career at Minden High School.
Stallworth averaged 13 points and 3.8 assists per game for UMass as a freshman, transferring after the school fired its coach. As for Kissinger, Williams said she has stunned the Huskers’ scout teamers with her 3-point shooting skills.
“She’s in range, most of the time, when she steps in the gym,” Williams said.
That trio joins returning guards Nicea Eliely, Jasmine Cincore and Hannah Whitish, who as a true freshman averaged nine points per game and hit 40.7 percent of her 3-pointers. Whitish averaged 17.3 points in her last four games of the season, including wins over Michigan State and Indiana.
Nebraska’s frontcourt is a much bigger question. Without Shepard — or center Allie Havers, who used up her basketball eligibility — NU is left with freshman Kate Cain, junior Darrien Washington and sophomore Rachel Blackburn, who missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery. Williams and Blackburn’s teammates said last season Blackburn’s presence could have been worth a few more wins.
Blackburn is going half the time in practice, Williams said, but is expected to play when the season arrives. As a freshman, the 6-foot-3 forward from Leavenworth, Kansas, averaged 4.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
» Morton and Cain have missed time with injuries, Williams said. Neither is expected to miss much, if any, of the season itself.
» Nebraska’s nonconference schedule is much softer than in 2016-17, which included eight 20-win teams and four NCAA tournament teams, headlined by Connecticut. NU plays five of its first seven games at home and two games in the San Juan Shootout are against Buffalo and Coastal Carolina. That tournament will be relocated from Puerto Rico to Daytona Beach, Florida, because of Hurricane Maria.
“We’re thrilled to be able to start at home and build that confidence of playing in front of Husker nation and a friendly fan base,” Williams said.
» The team has a created a “top dog toughness” award based on a quote from the NBA champion and Warriors star Draymond Green, who said in a Sports Illustrated article he wanted to create a category in which a player can be a “top dog” and score only four points. Williams said Cincore has embraced the Green mantra.
» Nebraska opens its season with an exhibition game vs. Minnesota State-Mankato on Nov. 5. The team is coached by Williams’ sister, Emilee Thiesse.