What to watch as Husker women gear up for tough Big Ten/ACC Challenge foe

Given its success last season, the Nebraska women’s basketball team figured it’d get a tough draw in the 2022 Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But NU hoped for a home game, too.

The Huskers got the hard assignment — No. 9 Virginia Tech. Despite winning at Wake Forest in 2021, the Challenge assigned NU — and a few other league teams — a second straight road game in the event. Now, with the Big Ten spurning ESPN entirely in its new TV contract, the network chose to boot the Big Ten from the Challenge and insert ESPN-friendly SEC.

“This year was a start of a two-year contract that is no more,” Nebraska coach Amy Williams said Wednesday.

After Virginia Tech, NU opens Big Ten play Sunday at No. 20 Maryland, a team the Huskers have never beaten, so this week represents one of the toughest Williams can recall outside of conference tournament play.

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The senior-and-transfer-laden Hokies (6-0) outrebound opponents 43.5-28 and are led by reigning ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, a 6-foot-6 center who averages 19.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.

“She can score in a lot of different ways,” Williams said of Kitley, who scored 42 points in an NCAA Tournament game last spring. “She’s got great touch. She she can go over right shoulder or left shoulder. When you start really looking for tendencies of what you want to take away, there’s not a ton of ‘she always does this’ or ‘she really likes this.’ That poses the biggest challenge.”

Yet Husker sophomore post Alexis Markowski, Williams said, did a good job in Puerto Rico against a similar player, 6-5 Mississippi State center Jessika Carter, who had 15 points and eight rebounds but ultimately fouled out in a 73-65 Nebraska win. Husker coaches track a slate of defensive statistics each game, Williams said, and Markowski graded out best for both NU games played in Puerto Rico.

Virginia Tech is dangerous beyond Kitley, though, with Maryland transfer guard Ashley Owusu — who averaged 21 points per game over three contests against NU — and Purdue transfer guard Kayana Traylor and Boston College transfer Taylor Soule, who was a 1,500-point scorer for the Eagles.

After strong play in Puerto Rico, Nebraska’s backcourt is on steadier ground. Allison Weidner came back from an eye injury — wearing goggles to protect it — to average eight points and five rebounds over two games in San Juan, while Jaz Shelley — cold from 3-point range through six games — made 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in the win over Mississippi State.

“She was very poised in a tight game situation, fourth quarter and overtime, she was just really confident, directing traffic, an incredible leader,” Williams said of Shelley. “Then we saw that carry out when she let her presence be felt on the offensive side.”

Notes

Williams continues to be “careful and cautious” with the return of guard of Sam Haiby, who re-tweaked a knee injury during her one appearance of the year against Tarleton State. Her status, Williams said, remains day-to-day.

NU is a No. 10 seed and one of the “last four teams with a bye” in ESPN’s Bracketology projection this week. Seven Big Ten teams are in the projection, led by projected No. 1 seed Indiana. Virginia Tech is projected as a No. 3 seed.

Two concerns early in 2022: Turnovers and free throw shooting. The Huskers are averaging 14.7 giveaways and making just 67.4% of their free throws. Four misses late in the Mississippi State game left the door open for MSU’s buzzer-beating, overtime-sending 3-pointer. Nebraska hasn’t been below 70% for a season since year two under Williams.

ACC/Big Ten Challenges

Nebraska at No. 9 Virginia Tech

Where: Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, Va.

TV | Radio: ACCNetwork | 105.3 FM in Lincoln, 105.9 FM in Omaha (Huskers Radio Network)

Virginia Tech (6-0)

C – Elizabeth Kitley 6-6 Sr. 19.7

F – Taylor Soule 5-11, Sr. 9.7

G–Georgia Amoore 5-9 Jr. 11.5

G – Ashley Owusu 6-0 Sr. 11.8

G – Kayla King 6-0 Sr. 10.7

Nebraska (5-2)

C –Alexis Markowski 6-3 So. 13.4

F – Isabelle Bourne 6-2 Jr. 10.7

G – Jaz Shelley 5-9 Jr. 12.9

G–Trinity Brady 5-11 So. 3.0

G – Allison Weidner 5-10 So. 10.0

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