Sunshine after a cloudy season: Beyond the X’s and O’s, new Husker women’s basketball coaching staff aiming for better team chemistry

LINCOLN — In seven of the past 10 years, the Nebraska women’s team made the NCAA tournament. Given the Huskers’ practice facility, arena and full cost-of-attendance scholarship — amenities that not many women’s basketball programs enjoy — making the 64-team tournament isn’t a high bar.

So when All-Big Ten center Jessica Shepard is asked whether NU will be an NCAA tournament team this season, her answer is expected.

“I think that’s the goal every year,” Shepard said.

That won’t be easy in the first year of coach Amy Williams’ tenure. Not with Nebraska’s challenging schedule — which includes the preseason WNIT and home games with Connecticut and California. Not with season-ending surgery to one of NU’s key contributors, forward Rachel Blackburn. Not with so much inexperience and youth in the backcourt.

“It’s definitely going to be a process — with new coaches and how young we are,” said Shepard, the Big Ten freshman of the year who averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds. “We’ll definitely have to get used to playing with each other and really learning the system.”

Shepard, a five-star recruit out of Fremont, is the team’s centerpiece.

Last season, NU had two of them — Shepard and point guard Natalie Romeo. The latter transferred to Washington in the wake of former coach Connie Yori’s resignation, which occurred after an athletic department investigation into her conduct.

Romeo said her teammates’ immaturity was at the root of the investigation. The team’s chemistry was off all year.

So it’s little surprise that Williams — a former Husker point guard who last season guided South Dakota to the WNIT title — focused on creating chemistry. Williams’ biggest goal for every player, including Shepard, is to be a “great teammate.”

Williams asks players what they’ve done to be a good teammate, Shepard said. Giving a teammate a ride to practice. Hanging out with them. Offering a compliment.

The new coach also wants players to embrace a sunshine attitude.

“The coaches are big on us sticking together — not getting down on each other and staying positive,” Shepard said. “The coaches said the other day: ‘We need you to stay positive and we’ll do the correcting.’ If we can buy into that and stay as positive as we can, you’ll see that progress sooner rather than later.”

For Nebraska to make progress in Big Ten play — Maryland and Ohio State are the favorites again — it will need to get a firm grip on its backcourt. Williams said in a mid-October press conference that point guard could be run “by committee.”

Senior Esther Ramacieri, junior Emily Wood and freshmen Rylie Cascio Jensen and Hannah Whitish are in the mix. Shepard, a former high school teammate of Cascio Jensen’s, said the freshman makes some impressive passes.

At the two and three spots, junior Jasmine Cincore and Maddie Simon — a sophomore from Lincoln Pius X — have made major strides in their games, Shepard said. Freshman Nicea Eliely already has a reputation for good defense in training camp.

In the frontcourt, Shepherd will be joined by senior center Allie Havers, sophomore Darrien Washington and freshman Grace Mitchell, a 6-foot-2 3-point shooter who is willing to play more in the paint, Williams said.

Williams’ offense is more up-tempo and focused on taking the first available shot, Shepard said. When easy transition baskets aren’t there, Shepard said, coaches have good half-court schemes.

Shepard welcomes that — she spent most of her freshman season with her back to the basket, like a traditional post player. She was still hard to stop — she shot 51 percent from the floor — but Shepard has a face-up game, too.

She’s also healthy. Shepard spent last season playing on a rehabbed knee.

The casual glance at the Huskers suggests they’ll go as far as Shepard can carry them. Shepard, like Williams, shrugs off personal goals. She’ll focus on building a team culture.

“We’re still learning about each other — how they like to coach and we like to play — and it’s been unbelievable, considering when they got here, the relationships they’ve built with players and the respect the players have for the coaches,” Shepard said.

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