womens basketball guards

Nebraska’s Sam Haiby (4) goes up for a lay-up during the Huskers’ matchup against Purdue at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Jan. 22, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Looking at Nebraska’s women’s basketball team statistics, the Huskers appear to be just another average team. The Huskers are sixth, seventh or eighth in the Big Ten in the following areas: scoring defense, scoring margin, scoring offense, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal percentage, assists per game and offensive rebounds.

Why sixth, seventh or eighth? Those ranks are the closest to what an average Big Ten team would look like. Nebraska is 5-4 in Big Ten play, but is 15-5 on the season and in NCAA Tournament contention.

One primary reason for Nebraska’s stunning turnaround from last season to this season has been the much improved play of its guards. Its three main guards are the leaders of the team and have taken a selfless role on the court.

Senior guard Hannah Whitish has taken a step back in scoring, averaging 8.9 points per game and is on pace for her lowest season average in her four-year career. A usually troubling sign for a senior is not one on the Huskers though.

Whitish is shooting better on the court, going .370 from the perimeter and has made several clutch shots, as in games against Purdue and Michigan.

Nebraska’s offense is handled by a backcourt of two guards along with either a third guard or forward playing a major offensive role. 

6-foot-1 guard and four-year starter Nicea Eliely has most benefited from the offense this season. Eliely’s height lets her play the forward spot, but other attributes, such as shooting, give head coach Amy Williams flexibility to start her at either guard or forward.

Eliely’s physicality gives her an ability to defend both guards and forwards, which can be seen through her rebounding. Eliely averages 4.1 rebounds per game and is second in offensive rebounds for the Huskers. 

The offensive rebounding helps Nebraska in two areas: free throws and extending possessions.

By consistently getting to the line over the course of a game, Eliely helps wear down the interior and frees up the paint for junior center Kate Cain and other Husker forwards to get easy points.

Eliely does this with constant off-ball movement, tiring out the player guarding her and setting up Nebraska’s forwards and centers to control the paint.

Despite eventually losing, Nebraska came back against Purdue by using its centers and forwards. That does not happen if Eliely isn’t taking away an extra defender, Whitish isn’t a shooting threat or if sophomore guard Sam Haiby isn’t attacking on both sides.

The last piece of the revitalized Husker offense is Haiby. Williams’ starting line-up has three guards, one forward and one center, similar to that of men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg.

Haiby is the most balanced guard of the three, not relying on one part of her offensive game to have a good night. Haiby averages 11.3 points per game, shooting from anywhere on the court and has 67 assists on the season.

That number may seem small, as that averages out to just 3.4 assists per game, but three guards on the court at the same time translates to more ball movement. The Nebraska trio has 187 out of 300 Husker assists, or 62.3% of total Husker assists.

Ball movement gives Nebraska an edge against opposing defenses that could line up bigger players on the smaller three guards.

Nebraska is the most blocked team in the Big Ten, having over five shots blocked a game, yet it moves the ball effortlessly. 58% of Nebraska’s made shots have come directly from assists, a good sign for an offense reliant on beating teams that trot out bigger line-ups to counter Nebraska.

Size is countered by shooting or forcing taller defenders to play out of position. Nebraska has done both, letting the Huskers play at their pace of 70 possessions per game. That number is on par with the Huskers’ NCAA Tournament team two seasons ago that ran a similar style of offense.

In the 2017-18 season, Williams ran this line-up style but had more interchangeable parts. Forwards could play the guard spots and vice versa, but this season, Nebraska does not have that depth.

Junior Taylor Kissinger was a key depth piece, but her season-ending injury gives Nebraska less wiggle room. Despite that, the three guards have sized up the competition through ball movement and are on pace to score the most points in the Williams era.

Yes, Nebraska appears to be average on paper and still could regress back to that state. However, that regression would take something that the Huskers haven’t seen all year: poor play from all three of its guards.