Makenzie Helms

Nebraska’s Makenzie Helms (1) runs with the ball during the Huskers’ matchup against Penn State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Huskers arrived at the Big Ten Tournament as a 10 seed and needed a couple of wins to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. The Huskers didn’t even get one win as they fell in their tournament opener against Michigan 81-75.

Nebraska’s senior guards Nicea Eliely and Hannah Whitish stepped up big in the comeback victory against Michigan earlier in the season, but their performances in the rematch were polar opposites

Whitish had zero points and Eliely had six in the duo’s final conference game of their career. Even with the poor performances, the Huskers controlled the first half.

Nebraska took a 42-34 lead into halftime and was well on its way to a win. The Huskers were rolling despite limited action from defensive anchor and junior center Kate Cain, who played only seven first half minutes. 

Cain had two fouls in the first minute of the game before being benched for the rest of the first quarter and about half the second quarter.

Despite her absence, the Huskers shot over 50 percent from the field and freshman forward Isabelle Bourne took over Cain’s role. Bourne scored 11 first half points on an effective 4-for-7 shooting while sophomore forward Leigha Brown continued her scoring run with 11 points.

Nebraska was clicking but when the second half started, the game started to shift in favor of the Wolverines. In the last matchup between the two teams, Michigan had taken a similar lead into the second half but the Huskers came back to steal the game from Michigan.

This time, the Wolverines forced the comeback. The Wolverine offense was led by improved shooting as they hit no 3-pointers in the first half. Michigan began the third quarter with a 10-2 run to tie the game at 44 apiece.

After the Wolverines’ run, freshman guard Maddie Nolan made a 3-pointer to take a 47-44 lead and Michigan’s first lead since the first quarter. Nebraska never led again as its defense struggled to defend the Wolverine offense.

The Wolverines were also playing with a disadvantage as their top scorer, sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, had two fouls in the first quarter like Cain. Hillmon played only 10 minutes and during that stretch, Nebraska’s offense exploded and took a 28-14 lead before she came back into the game.

Hillmon came back during the second quarter and brought the Wolverine offense back from the dead. Despite sitting for half of the first half, Hillmon led the offense in points and helped neutralize Bourne as she scored two points in the final seven minutes of the first half.

Though Nebraska’s post players scored 10 points in the third quarter, those were the only points scored. Cain had six points while Bourne had four points.

Nebraska had 11 third quarter shots while Michigan had 20 shots during the same quarter, which shows the Wolverines’ rebounding prowess. The Wolverines had five offensive rebounds, two from Hillmon.

Those offensive rebounds led to extra points that helped put Michigan in the lead and allowed it to dominate possessions. Though Nebraska was effective from the field, its offense had been neutralized through rebounding struggles.

Sophomore forward Leigha Brown returned back to her home state in Indiana and began putting up another memorable performance. Brown had 11 points in the first half and hit two 3-pointers.

In the third quarter, Brown had zero points along with the three Husker guards. The Husker starting guards combined for seven second half points. Nebraska now needed two things to happen: neutralize Michigan’s physicality and start shooting better from the outside.

That never came.

Michigan led 58-52 heading into the fourth quarter and continued to control the game as it extended its lead to as many as 12 points. Sophomore guard Amy Dilk led the Wolverines in scoring with 22 points and 13 second-half points.

Dilk had six points in the fourth quarter, four of those being from tough lay-ups that extended Michigan’s lead to seven and then nine points.

On Nebraska’s end, Brown bounced back with 11 points in the fourth quarter but the rest of the team couldn’t back her up. Nebraska scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, but a lack of perimeter shooting held the team back.

The Huskers shot 6-of-11 in the first half and turned around with 1-for-7 in the second half from the perimeter.

With the 81-75 loss, the Huskers now wait until Monday when they will find out their postseason plans.