The Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament begins Wednesday, and Nebraska is looking to make a run in order to land a spot in the NCAA Tournament or WNIT.
The Huskers enter the Big Ten Tournament as the sixth seed with a 9-9 record in conference play, winning tiebreakers against Minnesota, Northwestern and Michigan State for a higher seed.
As the sixth seed, Nebraska earned a first-round bye, meaning the Huskers will play either No. 11 Purdue or No. 14 Illinois depending on the result of that game Wednesday.
Either way, Nebraska is in good shape to take a first-round victory. The Huskers defeated Illinois in their lone matchup this year, leading from start to finish in a 77-67 road win. Freshman forward Ashtyn Veerbeek led the way in that game with a career-high 19 points to go along with a team-high eight rebounds.
Freshman guard Arieal Scott and senior forward Alex Wittinger are two players for the Illini who made noise in the first matchup and could pose problems in the potential rematch. Scott had 23 points against Nebraska, while Wittinger put up 14 points and 13 rebounds, including seven offensive boards.
However, the more likely matchup will be Purdue. In the lone game between Purdue and Illinois this year, the Boilermakers won in a 72-50 blowout.
Nebraska found success against Purdue in earlier matches this year, sweeping them in the two-game season series. In their first matchup, the Huskers outscored the Boilermakers 18-6 in the first quarter on their way to an 84-64 road victory. The 20-point win stands as the largest margin of victory Nebraska had this year in conference play. Junior guard Hannah Whitish shined in the contest, dropping a season-high 28 points to go with a career-high 12 assists.
In the second meeting, the score was a little tighter. Nebraska came out on top 67-61 but needed a 10-point second half comeback to sweep the Boilermakers. Freshman forward Leigha Brown anchored the comeback, scoring 22 of her career-high 30 points in the second half, including six in the final minute of the game. Junior guard Nicea Eliely also made an impact, scoring just nine points but dominating on the defensive end with five rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
To get a third win against Purdue, Nebraska will have to slow down the trio of junior guard Dominique Oden, sophomore guard Karissa McLaughlin and junior forward Ae’Rianna Harris. In two games against Nebraska, the trio combined to score 82 of Purdue’s 125 points, nearly two-thirds of the team’s offensive output.
All three Boilermakers received yearly awards Monday as well. Harris was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for the second-consecutive year along with being named second team all-conference.
McLaughlin was named First Team All-Big Ten, while Oden was an honorable mention.
If Nebraska beats Purdue, it will go on to play No. 3 Rutgers. Nebraska lost to Rutgers earlier this year, falling 62-56 on Jan. 13. The Huskers started slow in the loss, falling behind 21-13 by the end of the first quarter. Nebraska outscored the Scarlet Knights 43-41 in the final three quarters but was unable to overcome the deficit.
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer will not be coaching, as she recently announced she would be taking the remainder of the regular season and Big Ten Tournament off to rest. Instead, assistant coach Tim Eatman will take over coaching duties.
Rutgers also dismissed redshirt junior Ciani Cryor and junior Caitlin Jenkins since their matchup with Nebraska. Cryor, who led the Scarlet Knights with 13 points, four rebounds and four assists in the win against Nebraska, was dismissed in February after a violation of team policy. Jenkins, who had eight points and 12 rebounds against the Huskers, was dismissed after being arrested in early February.
If the Huskers pull off that upset, they would end up playing either No. 2 Iowa, No. 7 Minnesota or No. 10 Indiana in the semifinals. The most likely opponent is Iowa, which is ranked No. 10 in the nation and been victorious against Nebraska twice by margins of six and 16.
All-American senior forward Megan Gustafson leads the Hawkeyes. Gustafson averaged 28.5 points and 18.5 rebounds in two games against the Huskers.
An upset may seem unlikely, but if Nebraska can do it, it will go to the Big Ten Championship Game with a chance to win an NCAA Tournament berth. There are seven, possible opponents for the Huskers in that game if they make it there, but the most likely matchup seems to be No. 1 Maryland.
Maryland, ranked No. 8 in the nation, has a pair of big wins over Nebraska already. The Terrapins beat the Huskers 81-63 on Jan. 8, and blew Nebraska out 89-63 on Feb. 14. Junior guard Kaila Charles averaged 20.5 points against Nebraska this year, leading the Terrapins in scoring in both contests.
As the Huskers stand at 14-15, the NCAA Tournament seems unlikely. However, the WNIT may be a much more realistic option. At-large teams in the WNIT are required to have a record of .500 or better to qualify. This means Nebraska will have to defeat Purdue or Illinois and a shorthanded Rutgers to qualify. There is also an automatic bid for the highest-finishing team in the conference that doesn’t make the tournament, but that team is likely to be fifth-seeded Ohio State.
Nebraska has a somewhat favorable path to make it to the semifinals, and if it can pull off a big upset or two, there is still a sliver of hope that this team goes dancing.