Nebraska remains proud of ‘special’ season despite first-round exit from NCAA tournament

Nebraska remains proud of ‘special’ season despite first-round exit from NCAA tournament
Nebraska's season ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament. (The Associated Press)

AUSTIN, Texas — Nebraska’s season of restoration is over.

Arizona State broke open a close game with a 14-2 push during the final five minutes of the third quarter, defeating the Huskers 73-62 Saturday in the opening round of the Kansas City Region.

Nebraska finished with a 21-11 record after winning just seven games last season, Amy Williams’ first as coach.

Now, after an astounding turnaround but a disappointing dismissal from the tournament, the Huskers are left to apply context to their season.

“It’s very difficult to do that,” Williams said. “I told our players in the locker room that, ‘You can let this sting for a little while, but permanently we are gonna hold our heads up high.’ We’re not gonna have this be the final taste in our mouth. We are gonna walk away being very, very proud of the progress that was made for our program.”

Guard Robbi Ryan led Arizona State (22-12), seeded seventh in the region, with 16 points. Omaha Benson graduate Kianna Ibis scored 14 for the Devils.

Janay Morton led 10th-seeded Nebraska with a season-best 16 points. Taylor Kissinger scored 15 off the bench.

Maddie Simon, the team’s second-leading scorer this season, spent most of the game in foul trouble, finishing scoreless with no rebounds and four fouls in 15 minutes. Simon averaged 10.4 points and 5.4 rebounds before Saturday.

Arizona State outrebounded Nebraska 49-27, turning 21 offensive boards into 16 second-chance points.

“I think they just relentlessly pursued the ball on every shot, whether it was offensively or defensively,” Morton said.

Simon’s foul difficulty didn’t help.

“I really felt like Maddie was gonna be a key for today’s game,” Williams said. “Today at shootaround we said, ‘We need you to strive to come away with 10 rebounds.’ Unfortunately, Maddie was saddled with foul trouble the whole game. Not only did she not come away with 10, but she had the goose egg.”

Arizona State outrebounded opponents by seven a game this season. Even so, coach Charli Turner Thorne was dissatisfied coming into the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils were only at plus-two in their most recent game, a loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament. They paid a price for that in practice.

“If anybody didn’t hit a rebounding spot or missed a box out, the entire team did five push-ups,” Turner Thorne said. “We did a lot of push-ups.”

Nebraska trailed by nine after a 3-point basket by Morton with two minutes remaining. But Jasmine Cincore was assessed an unsportsmanlike foul with 1:23 left, after originally being called for a common offensive foul, giving Arizona State two free throws and possession. Officials reviewed the first call on replay.

Hannah Whitish (12 points) made two consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, giving the Huskers a three-point lead.

But Arizona State responded with a 14-0 push before Nebraska made two late free throws to trail by 11 at the end of the period. The Huskers did not make a field goal during the final 5:33 of the quarter.

The difference?

“They were aggressive the entire game, but I think they stepped it up a little bit,” Whitish said. “But we had our looks.”

Nebraska converted 37.3 percent of its field-goal attempts in the game, missing 8 of 12 in the third quarter. The Huskers missed their last six field-goal attempts of the quarter and committed turnovers on two straight possessions during that stretch.

“Just a fire kind of went under our butts and we decided we needed to ramp up the pressure defensively and ramp up the energy,” Arizona State forward Jamie Ruden said.

Largely because of that, now comes a time of reflection for Nebraska.

“This season was something special,” Whitish said. “Especially with the season we had last year.”

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