northwestern wbb preview

Kate Cain (31) jumps to block a Maryland player's shot at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

To say that the 2018-19 season has been frustrating for the Nebraska women’s basketball team is an understatement.

This time last year, the Huskers were putting the finishing touches on a 21-win season that would end in an NCAA tournament appearance. With several key pieces returning and a top-20 recruiting class, there was reason to believe Nebraska could be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten for the next few years.

Instead, this year has been filled with growing pains — which are expected with a team with four freshmen that play pivotal roles. Nebraska’s 12-14 record does not do them justice, as the Huskers have been competitive all season but have struggled to close out close games.

Nebraska, who currently find themselves 7-8 in the Big Ten, didn’t need to worry about closing out a tight contest on Sunday, Feb. 17, as the Huskers rolled over No. 24 Michigan State 82-71. Junior guard Hannah Whitish led the Huskers in scoring with 16 points, and freshman forward Leigha Brown scored 14 points and collected 5 rebounds.

Even with the ups and downs this season has contained, the Huskers are in a great position to climb the conference standings with three games remaining and earn a top-seven seed in the Big Ten tournament. In order to do that, Nebraska will need to win a road game against the Northwestern Wildcats on Thursday, Feb. 21, in a critical showdown.

The Wildcats (15-11, 8-7 Big Ten) defeated the Huskers 58-54 on Thursday, Jan. 24 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. In that matchup, the Wildcats offense was led by sophomore guard Lindsey Pulliam, who scored 21 points. Senior forward Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah dominated the Huskers in the paint, scoring 10 points and collecting 19 rebounds.

Kunaiyi-Akpanah is out-muscling opponents on the glass, averaging 11.1 rebounds per game — the 22nd best mark in the country. Junior center Abi Scheid, who did not play in the teams’ first matchup, compliments Kunaiyi-Akpanah in the frontcourt averaging 11.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

Nebraska will need sophomore center Kate Cain and freshman forwards Kayla Mershon, Ashtyn Veerbeek and Brown to have big games rebounding the ball while keeping Northwestern’s dynamic frontcourt quiet.

The Huskers will look for Cain’s shot-blocking prowess to help limit Northwestern’s effectiveness in the paint. Cain, who blocked a school-record 100 shots last year, currently has the third-most blocked shots in the country with 71.

Pulliam leads the Northwestern frontcourt averaging 16.6 points per game, but the Huskers will look for Whitish to prevent the sophomore guard from having another big outing against the Huskers. Whitish, a Preseason All-Big Ten selection, is leading the Huskers in scoring during conference play with 11.3 points per game.

The Wildcats’ backcourt may look different against the Huskers, as sophomore guard Jordan Hamilton was injured during Northwestern’s last game against Purdue. If she cannot play Thursday night, the Wildcats will look for production from freshman guard Sydney Wood (3.3 PPG), who has appeared in all 15 Big Ten games for the Wildcats.

With a win, the Huskers would improve their conference record to 8-8 and build momentum heading into a rivalry showdown against the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes on Monday, Feb. 25 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Wildcats are looking to boost their seed for the conference tournament with a win while hoping to avoid a fourth loss in their last five games.

Thursday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois. The game will be streamed through BTN Plus.

sports@dailynebraskan.com