LINCOLN — The Nebraska women's basketball team has reached the midpoint in its season, and coach Connie Yori is facing a tension Big Ten basketball coaches often do in January, when winter and a second semester of school coincide with the grind of conference play.
At 13-4 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, the Huskers see their goals — a league crown, a high NCAA tournament seed and a long run in that tournament culminating in a home regional — remain firmly intact. But a lack of depth — only six players are averaging more than seven minutes — has left them fatigued in the wake of two tightly contested games.
So a bye week hit Nebraska just in time, right?
“I would say so,” senior forward Jordan Hooper said.
Except this: The Huskers returned to practice Tuesday after a 77-75 Sunday loss to Purdue. And the energy wasn't there.
“We looked like we were running in mud,” Yori said. And Hooper — who's missed an average of 11.8 shots per game in five Big Ten contest — “looked exhausted.”
Yori is downbeat by nature. Asked Wednesday what her team has done well this season, she mentioned free throw shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio, but traversed the gap to what the team did poorly — that is, play defense — by the end of the question 30 seconds later. “Story of my life,” she quipped. Focusing on the weaknesses.
But the numbers support Yori's concern. NU is giving up 70.6 points per game in five league games. Last year, the Huskers gave up 56.9 points in Big Ten play. Nebraska was, by last season's end, a canny, clever defense, knowing where to rotate and how to do it despite not having the horses to play the hounding man-to-man defense Yori prefers. And the Huskers weren't much deeper then than they are now.
Thus far, this NU team seems to lack that sixth sense half of the time. Yori wants to work on it before Sunday's game at Northwestern. With tough workouts.
And that's the tension.
“How do you get better defensively? You work on it in practice,” she said. “But the more you work on it in practice, the more tired you get, the less legs you have for games. It's trying to find that fine line between getting better through practices and yet not wearing your kids out.”
NU's still ranked in the Associated Press (No. 21) and coaches (No. 18) polls, but its RPI — 74th as of Wednesday, according to realtimerpi.com — is average. Purdue — ranked seventh in the RPI because of a tough nonconference schedule — was Nebraska's best chance to raise its ratings profile. And despite a late comeback, NU fell short in part because it lacked the frontcourt stamina to stop Purdue's one good post player. Whitney Bays scored all 19 of her points in the second half, including the game-winner.
After the game, Yori said Wednesday, she told her coaches: We should have played Allie more. That'd be 6-foot-5 freshman Allie Havers, a three-sport star in Michigan preps who's still acclimating to the college game. Havers has averaged 6.2 minutes per game in Big Ten play — the same as NU's fourth guard, Sadie Murren — and she's struggled with turnovers, specifically traveling.
But Yori and Hooper said NU is plowing ahead with more playing time for Havers. It's needed, Yori said, to buy Hooper or junior forward Emily Cady a few more minutes of rest in each game.
“Allie needs to play to rest those guys, but she also needs to make fewer mistakes when she's out there,” Yori said. “She doesn't necessarily need to be this big scoring threat.”
These Huskers can score, in part because of point guard Rachel Theriot's hot hand. She's shot 55.6 percent from the floor — 50 percent from 3-point range — since the start of league play, and took home her first Big Ten Player of the Week Award Monday. She's NU's leading scorer in Big Ten play at 18.6 points per game.
Theriot gets so many good looks, Yori said, because of the defensive attention paid to Hooper. The senior from Alliance, Neb., has had her longest year, spending weeks in Russia over the summer for the World University Games.
At her press conference Wednesday, Hooper said she wasn't tired or fatigued, despite Yori saying so Sunday and Wednesday. In a shorter interview just outside the press room, Hooper conceded she could be a little fatigued, although she took the blame.
“I made myself more tired by not hitting shots and not getting rebounds,” said Hooper, who's averaging 37.4 minutes per game in Big Ten play. “When I do hit shots, it gives me more adrenaline, it energizes me. When I'm not, I fall back and kind of look pathetic. I'm still going to go hard in practice.”
Last January, Nebraska had lost three of four games before players held a meeting in Minneapolis, upset Minnesota on its home floor Jan. 20, and started a 10-game winning streak. The Huskers made a memorable Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament. They responded to the winter doldrums and fatigue with fire and momentum.
Hooper expects the same this year.
“If we can get all of our — all our stuff — in a row, all of our ducks in a row, we can definitely go on that 10-game win streak again,” Hooper said. “We just have to have the right focus, the right mentality, the right preparation and I think we'll be just fine.”