For Nebraska head coach Amy Williams, the group of seniors from the 2019-20 season remains something special to her: Three of the four seniors are the first players to spend all four years under Williams at Nebraska and graduate playing only for her.
Williams inherited a struggling Husker basketball program and could have potentially lost a recruiting class. Seniors Hannah Whitish, Nicea Eliely and Grace Mitchell had all committed to Nebraska before Williams’ arrival.
“Three of the four had been with us since we first got here and stuck through a lot,” Williams said. “They had stuck through a lot of highs and lows but stayed committed to the program.”
Whitish, a 5-foot-9-inch guard, was Wisconsin’s Miss Basketball in 2016 and broke into Nebraska’s starting lineup as a freshman. Since then, Whitish has become one of Nebraska’s best offensive players in program history.
The part of Whitish’s play that stands out is her 3-point shooting. From the beginning, Whitish always relied on her shot to beat those bigger and stronger than her.
Whitish’s lethal shooting ability put her on the career leaderboards in third in most 3-pointers made at Nebraska. Her offensive production was an immediate boost for the Huskers, but her defense was a work in progress.
“Coming in my freshman year, I definitely was not a very good defender at all,” Whitish said. “When you come out in college, everybody is quicker, faster and stronger than you. You’ve got to pick it up.”
Over the last four years, Whitish has steadily played more minutes. Her usage has gone up, and though her 2020 season saw a dip in performance numbers, she still has the ability to instantly flip the game.
Nebraska’s 13-point comeback against Michigan came on a career night from Whitish. She tied a career-high six 3-pointers, keeping the Huskers in the game. Whitish was perfect from the field in the first half and was even more remarkable second half. She hit half of her 3-pointers in the second half and helped spark a second-half comeback.
Since that game, Whitish has been inconsistent from the perimeter but continues to run the offense.
In the Michigan comeback, Eliely was another significant factor in the win. Eliely had zero first-half points before getting 11 second-half points and a season-high three 3-pointers.
Eliely has been the other major contributor over the last four years and, like Whitish, got her start right away. Eliely has been extremely dependable, starting 114 out of a possible 117 games during her four-year career, and has been described by Williams as a “coach on the court.”
Eliely’s play style is also the polar opposite of Whitish. Where Whitish would shoot, Eliely would drive to the basket and fight for extra points. That physicality, along with her 6-foot-1-inch frame, has made her a defense stopper over the last four years.
Eliely also adopted the role of “pirate.” The pirate is the ultimate defender for Nebraska and has one goal: stop the ball.
“Your job is to stop the ball no matter who it is,” Eliely said. “It could be a point guard or post who has the ball, but your job is to stop the ball.”
Though junior center Kate Cain has taken the blocks mantle, Eliely has made a living on steals and embraced the pirate role fully.
Eliely will likely not make Nebraska’s career steals leaderboards, but her play is not supposed to be that. Over the course of four years, Eliely has turned into an all-around player by doing everything she can.
“I’m a senior now, so it’s my last year,” Eliely said. “I’m trying to put everything I can into every game.”
If that means fighting for rebounds or shooting from downtown, Eliely will do that. This season, Eliely had a career-high in rebounds for a single game and continues to be the defensive leader by picking up any assignment
Another contrast to Whitish, Eliely’s offense has never been her strong part of the game, as she doesn’t have the perimeter shooting of Whitish. But both players took one piece of advice from Williams over the last four years.
“Coach always talks about how our offense can’t dictate our defense,” Whitish said. “Just because you’re not shooting well doesn’t mean you can’t be … playing for your team.”
The two seniors leave behind big shoes to fill, but their legacy is still a work in progress. Though the season isn’t what the two had in mind, Whitish and Eliely can still shift the narrative if the Huskers make a postseason tournament run later this month.