Leigha Brown

Nebraska’s Leigha Brown (32) goes up for a shot during the Huskers’ matchup against Purdue at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

At a typical women’s basketball practice, a well-executed drill or quick scrimmage lead to a happy head coach Amy Williams and players saying “Yes, Queen” to one another.

The saying comes from every player who sits out during that drill or scrimmage of the practice. The next group of players enters, with the majority of those coming from the unrecognized part of a basketball team: the bench.

Nebraska’s depth is thinner this season than it has been the last two years. The Huskers’ depth took a hit when junior guard Taylor Kissinger went down with a hip injury, but the bench has still proven to be invaluable. 

Sophomore forward Leigha Brown is not only the leading scorer for the Huskers, but also the sixth woman. Brown hasn’t started a game all season but plays 25.8 minutes per game, fourth-most on this Huskers team. 

“It’s definitely different to have your leading scorer come off the bench,” Brown said. 

Despite not starting the game on the court, Brown usually plays with the starting lineup, replacing sophomore forward Ashtyn Veerbeek or one of the three Husker guards.

For example, two minutes into the game against Indiana on Feb. 9, Brown replaced sophomore guard Sam Haiby. She is usually not put into the game that quickly, but she is always the first substitution of the game. 

Brown plays the fourth-most minutes, meaning she plays some of her minutes with the rest of the Husker bench. Brown’s scoring gives the Nebraska bench players a significant boost on offense by spacing the floor with her shooting ability.

“Leigha is an incredible candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year,” head coach Amy Williams said. “She brings that spark for us off the bench.”

Spacing the floor frees up the paint, and, for someone with Brown’s size, that is a major advantage. A 6-foot-2-inch forward, Brown gives the two other main Husker bench players a chance to maximize their limited time on the floor.

Freshman forward Isabelle Bourne is the main bench player for Nebraska’s frontcourt. No one can replace junior center Kate Cain’s size and defensive ability, but Bourne does her best. Because of this, Bourne has an important responsibility: controlling the paint.

On offense, Bourne is more flexible than Cain because of her shot range, although Cain is superior in the post.

Bourne’s offense has not been pretty at times during this season, as she has 40 turnovers, but her offense is not as important as her defense. Bourne plays an average of 16.7 minutes per game, the second most for any bench piece on the Huskers. 

This means that Bourne is not just filling in for Cain, but she plays at the forward spot as well as center.

Like Brown, Bourne has to be a versatile player. Bourne’s development as a versatile forward on defense has seen her usage increase throughout this season. The most obvious statistic displaying her transition to a stronger defender is blocks.

In non-conference play, Bourne had six blocks over 10 games. In three of Nebraska’s last four games, Brown has had at least three blocks each game. Nine blocks over this stretch, despite being considerably shorter than Cain, gives Nebraska’s defense another weapon off the bench.

There is a significant dive in usage for players behind Bourne in the rotation. Sophomore forward Kayla Mershon started one game but plays just below 11 minutes per game. Mershon is the tallest non-starter at 6 foot 3 inches but struggles on the defensive end.

Nebraska runs a seven-woman rotation for the majority of the game and occasionally uses Mershon or other Huskers to give the rotation a quick rest. That is on par with most fellow conference opponents, but there is something missing on the bench.

Nebraska’s three most-used bench players all play a part in the frontcourt. 

Combined with a reliance on three guards, the Huskers have little margin for error from its guards. It is no coincidence that, with a decline in Husker guard play, Nebraska has fallen down the conference standings.

The Husker bench rotation revolves around Brown and Bourne, who have proven to be solid contributors. The two are versatile players but neither are natural guards, which the Huskers need now more than ever.