The No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats (11-4, 9-4 Big Ten) and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-9, 7-8 Big Ten) will meet on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET (BTN+) in a rematch of a New Year’s Eve nail-biter won by the Huskers, 65-63.
Nebraska guard Sam Haiby rebounded her own miss and put back a desperation layup that went in at the buzzer to win the contest.
At the time, Northwestern was shell-shocked. It shared the Big Ten regular season crown with the Maryland Terrapins last year and came into this season as one of the frontrunners in the conference. It had been 4-0 overall entering the game with two comfortable Big Ten wins over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (Dec. 14) and Purdue Boilermakers (Dec. 17).
Meanwhile, Nebraska was coming off a 7-11 season in the conference and had lost its top scorer, Leigha Brown, by way of transfer to the Michigan Wolverines and its fourth-leading scorer, Hannah Whitish, to graduation. It did return its second-leading scorer in Haiby and third-leading scorer in Kate Cain, but was not expected to be a contender. It had also lost two of its first three Big Ten games of the season, with the one win coming over the lowly Illinois Fighting Illini, who are currently 3-13 (1-12 Big Ten). One of the losses was by 36 points to the Indiana Hoosiers and the other was to Purdue.
The Wildcats continued their struggles into their next game against Michigan on Jan. 3 and were down 55-26 at the break in that one before losing 84-63. Nebraska, on the other hand, continued to be a pest to other good teams. The Huskers beat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Jan. 3 and barely lost to No. 11 Michigan on Jan. 7 before topping the then-No. 23 Michigan State Spartans and the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes on Jan. 10 and Jan. 16, respectively.
However, Northwestern eventually got back on track and has still yet to fall out of the rankings, though they did lose their most recent contest to Rutgers on Feb. 11. And Nebraska has come back down to Earth — it is 2-5 since Jan. 16.
But maybe the Huskers have another upset in them and can get themselves into bubble talks with a strong finish to the season. Northwestern, on the other hand, wants revenge.
The first matchup altered the course of the teams’ seasons. Now it’s nearing the last chance for both to make a statement.
Highlights: Nebraska upsets Northwestern earlier in season
Northwestern’s key strength is forcing turnovers and it all starts with Veronica Burton, who is second in the nation with 4.1 steals per game. Burton leads her team in points (17.1) and assists (4.8) as well. Nebraska also has to watch out for Lindsey Pulliam, who was a preseason Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, has a lethal mid-range game and averages 16 points.
Haiby is the Huskers’ leading scorer at 17.4 points per game and she adds 7.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Isabelle Bourne backs her up with 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds, while Cain averages 9.9 and 6.3.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-9, 7-8 Big Ten) vs. No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats (11-4, 9-4 Big Ten)
When: Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, IL
Key to the matchup: Turnovers. Despite being the weaker team record-wise, Nebraska has advantages in a lot of areas. It has a better field goal percentage defense (37.8 to 43) and 3-point percentage defense (30.3 to 33.3), as well as better shooting from beyond the arc (33.5 to 28.2) and from the free throw line (70.1 to 64.1). Northwestern shoots better from the field (42.8 to 42) and gets to the line more frequently (22.3 attempts per game to 16.1), but its biggest advantage is in the turnover department. It needs to do well in that area to offset Nebraska’s strengths. The Wildcats’ scoring margin on the season is 11.5 points better than that of the Huskers, but that’s only because they score 13.8 more points off turnovers. If they aren’t generating points off turnovers, they could be in trouble.
Reason to watch: Northwestern shared the Big Ten regular season title with Maryland last year. They came into this season with high expectations and are very talented, but need to win this one to stay in the rankings.